Leon Panetta has sketched out his vision for an “austerity” military, which only spends slightly less than every country on Earth does on their militaries combined, rather than more. Keep in mind that this reflects the cuts from the spending cap version of the debt limit deal, not the trigger cuts which would reduce another $500-$600 billion from Pentagon budgets over 10 years. Panetta remains staunchly opposed to those cuts and wants to see them eliminated.
The “austerity” military would only be able to fight one ground war at a time, and if America cannot fight multiple ground wars at once, we might as well turn in our superpower badge, right?
In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.
Instead, he will say that the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to “spoil” a second adversary’s ambitions in another part of the world while conducting a number of other smaller operations, like providing disaster relief or enforcing a no-flight zone.
Pentagon officials, in the meantime, are in final deliberations about potential cuts to virtually every important area of military spending: the nuclear arsenal, warships, combat aircraft, salaries, and retirement and health benefits. With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, Mr. Panetta is weighing how significantly to shrink America’s ground forces.
Under this plan, the Pentagon budget would be roughly the same size as it was in Fiscal Year 2007, when we did not seem to lack for military capacity to meet threats.
The ideal would be if reductions in Pentagon budgets freed up money to use for more productive purposes, like on building infrastructure or other domestic social programs. But those are not in the cards, as the spending cap covers all discretionary spending. So the “austerity” military, while not a problem from a national security perspective, reflects a larger problem with austerity budgeting which will begin to take a bite out of GDP in FY2013.
Meanwhile, I would imagine that Panetta will paint a picture of a barely hanging-on military with the first round of cuts, to depict the trigger cuts as unacceptable. The truth is that previous drawdowns of wars in Korea and Vietnam, and even the Cold War, saw larger reductions in the size of the military. We can manage what would amount to a $1 trillion reduction in military budgets over ten years, as Barney Frank and Ron Paul promoted last year.
The problem lies in how Panetta will likely manage the cuts, by sacrificing retirement and health benefits for veterans to save outdated weapons systems. Even those who favor drastically reduced military spending should be mindful of the details, where some bloated defense contractor boondoggle stays, but co-pays go up on TRICARE benefits for veterans who had no say in authorizing war. And what gets done with the Overseas Contingency budget, which funds current wars, is crucial, as in recent years that has been used as a slush fund to fill in gaps in military spending, rather than for its intended purpose.
The proposed cuts, incidentally, still have to come into contact with Congress and the budgeting process, so you could see a lot more changes, mostly for the worse, after that.