Pentagon Spending on the Chopping Block

For the first time in years, there’s serious discussion about the size of our military budget.

By Christopher Hellman

The current economic crisis, coupled with concerns about spiraling deficits and our staggering national debt, is, at long last, bringing military spending to the forefront of the budget debate. Not since the end of the Cold War and the discussion of a “peace dividend” has the Pentagon budget—generally considered sacrosanct—received such scrutiny.

In January 2010, President Obama’s formed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to advise the administration on options for addressing the U.S. national debt. In response, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) convened a bi-partisan panel of national security experts to generate a series of recommendations on how to cut the defense budget while preserving U.S. national security. The Sustainable Defense Task Force released its report, “Debt, Deficits and Defense: A Way Forward,” on June 11, in Washington, D.C.

The Task Force report does not include any recommendations related to the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It looks only at the Pentagon’s annual “base” budget. The report’s combined recommendations would cut $960 billion over ten years, an average annual reduction of roughly 17 percent below current spending levels.
The signers will pledge not to support any major deficit reduction package considered by Congress unless it includes defense spending cuts.

Defense spending accounts for more than half of the federal government’s entire discretionary budget. At a time when virtually every community in the country is facing critical budget shortfalls, defense spending has continued to grow. While the White House has announced a freeze on all non-security related discretionary spending over the next three years, the Obama Administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011 (which will begin on September 30) includes a two percent increase in the Pentagon’s budget. This puts increasing pressure on most domestic spending programs. Over the last decade, total federal discretionary spending has grown by 28 percent and military spending (not including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) by over 40 percent. Meanwhile, federal grants to state and local governments have grown by only 14 percent.

The Task Force’s report proposes cuts such as reducing the number of deployed nuclear weapons to 1,000 and cutting the number of submarines and missiles which carry them; cutting the total number of active duty members of the Army and Marine Corps to 50,000 below their levels before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; cutting certain weapons programs including the Joint Strike Fighter, the V-22 “Osprey” tilt-rotor aircraft, and the total number of Navy aircraft carriers; and reforming the Pentagon’s health care and compensation systems.

As one might expect, reaction to the Task Force Report has been mixed, with traditional Pentagon supporters attacking it for being poorly timed, given that the nation is at war, and claiming it will lead us toward a military ill-prepared to meet our nation’s security needs. Meanwhile, moderates and fiscal conservatives view it as a responsible way to make defense cuts in a time of severe budget austerity. Those who have spent years arguing that military spending is a drain on more important domestic priorities welcome it as a step towards a more common sense approach to military budgeting.

Congressman Frank and a bi-partisan group of House members plan to circulate a letter to their colleagues regarding the defense budget and the deficit. While the final text of the letter has not been released at the time of this writing, it is not expected to endorse the Task Force report specifically. It is expected, however, that the signers will pledge not to support any major deficit reduction package considered by Congress unless it includes defense spending cuts. A similar letter is also expected to circulate in the Senate.

Regardless of the impact this or any other letter has on the deficit debate in Congress, the Task Force report insures one important thing: supporters of reduced military spending now have an answer to the question, “how do you cut Pentagon spending without undermining our nation’s security?” At a time when all areas of federal spending should be subject to the budget cutter’s knife, it can no longer be said, even within the mainstream debate, that it’s impossible to identify significant savings in the Pentagon budget.

Christopher Hellman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Christopher is communications liaison at the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was previously a military policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Defense Information, and spent ten years on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer working on national security and foreign policy issues. He is a frequent media commentator on military planning, policy, and budgetary issues.

Source: YES! Magazine

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