As the sequestration guillotine hangs over the Pentagon, Congress wants to know what the administration’s plan is in the event that a deal isn’t struck to avert a staggering $500 billion in automatic spending cuts to the U.S. military. These cuts, it pays to recall, would come in addition to the $487 billion the Pentagon has already carved from its spending plans over the next 10 years. The cuts would be disastrous, and making such cuts without any sort of plan or roadmap would compound disaster with irresponsibility. Could it be that the president may actually want the Pentagon’s budget to be cut by another $500 billion—or put another way, to shrink over the next decade by nearly $1 trillion?
Before scoffing at that possibility, recall that the Pentagon was the first place President Obama turned when the debt crisis emerged as a political issue. “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world,” Obama said in 2011.
Recall, too, that the president halted F-22 production at 187 planes, far short of the planned 381; cut the nation’s strategic nuclear forces by 30 percent and has floated proposals to cut the deterrent arsenal to as low as 300 warheads (about the size of China’s); withdrew from Iraq, over the objections of his top commanders and diplomats; under-resourced Afghanistan, then undercut the mission he gave his commanders by announcing a withdrawal deadline; handcuffed U.S. foreign policy to the lowest-common-denominator approach approved by Moscow; and famously “led from behind” in Libya, letting America’s oldest, closest allies in NATO know that the scope, scale and duration of America’s involvement would be limited. (Early in the war, the allies were stunningly told that the availability of essential U.S. strike aircraft “expires on Monday.”)
Channeling Newt Gingrich during the mid-1990s debates over baseline budgeting and Medicare growth, Obama has assured us that his Pentagon cuts aren’t really cuts. “Over the next 10 years,” he said in January, “the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow.” That’s a fair point: Slower growth is not a cut. Budget hawks and small-government types have been making that case for 40 years. But apparently that logic doesn’t apply to Washington’s overflowing smorgasbord of social programs (a subject for another essay).
Of course, “the fact of the matter” is that holding the Pentagon’s budget growth below the inflation rate, as the president plans, means fewer weapons systems, fewer troops, slower recapitalization—and more risk. This is where that fundamental review of America’s role in the world comes into focus.
To meet the president’s targets, the Navy has been ordered to cut the number of surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the “build time” of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years, and had to seek a special congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while the USS Gerald Ford is built and other flattops are retired or refurbished. Pressed by budget-cutters, the Air Force plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes. The active-duty Army will be cut from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000; the Marines from 202,000 to 182,000. The administration has slashed $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency, cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent and reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities by seven. A DOD report on weapons-acquisition plans for 2013 reveals spending cuts in combat drones, F-35 fighter-bombers, F/A-18 fighter-bombers, V-22 heli-planes, UH-60 helicopters, KC-46 refuelers, M-1 tank upgrades, Stryker armored vehicles, aircraft carriers, submarines, and a number of satellites and space-based sensors. Remember, all of this is before sequestration.
For perspective, compare these numbers with some from the not-too-distant past. In 1991, the total active-duty force was 2 million; today, it’s hovering around 1.3 million—and falling. In 1991, the U.S. deployed 15 aircraft carriers, some 300 bombers and nearly 4,000 fighters; today, the U.S. deploys 10 carriers, 162 bombers and roughly 2,000 fighters. At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 587 ships. The size of today’s fleet is 285 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of 240-250 ships at best,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman.
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