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Defense secretary Leon Panetta meeting with reporters. (DoD photo.)

Defense budget alarmism necessitates journalistic skepticism

ASK THIS | November 07, 2011

Defense expert Bill Hartung offers ways to put the Pentagon's cries of poverty into a little context.

By William D. Hartung

Concerns over the federal deficit have sparked discussion about the size of the military budget. Covering this story well requires a skeptical eye and a willingness to seek out sources beyond the Pentagon and the arms industry, whose pronouncements on the subject are too often taken at face value.

And it's important to put the Pentagon's cry of poverty in historical context. The record shows that military spending in recent years has been at its highest levels since World War II -- and that the Pentagon budget has grown for an unprecedented 13 years running.

Answers to these questions could help put the story in perspective.

Q. What impact have the Obama administration's Pentagon budget proposals had so far?

A number of key players in the military spending debate, from House Armed Services Committee Chair Howard P. "Buck" McKeon to Aerospace Industries Association executive director Marion Blakey have argued that the military budget has already been "cut to the bone."'

In fact, the $450 billion in reductions from the Pentagon's budget plan that have been proposed by the Obama administration are just that: proposals. If the administration follows through -- and Congress agrees -- they will be implemented over a 10-year period starting with the Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

The budget ceiling debates of the past year have cut back the rate of growth of Pentagon spending, but so far the Department of Defense budget has not been reduced in absolute terms. And the terms of the summer 2012 Budget Control Act will do little to change that.

In short, by at least one measure, not only has the Pentagon budget not been "cut to the bone" -- it has yet to be cut at all.

Q. Would trimming the Pentagon's spending plans by $1 trillion over 10 years constitute a "doomsday scenario'?

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has asserted that a failure of the budget "super committee" to hit its deficit reduction targets -- which could trigger up to $600 billion in additional Pentagon reductions beyond the administration's current proposals -- would constitute a "doomsday scenario" that would devastate our military.

Automatic cuts are problematic because they make it difficult to set priorities and do planning in a thoughtful way. But according to a significant group of independent analysts, cutting $1 trillion from the Pentagon's $6.1 trillion spending plan for the next decade will not in and of itself endanger our security.

Think tanks and task forces that have put forward plans for cutting anywhere from $800 billion to $1.2 trillion from Pentagon spending plans over the next decade include the Sustainable Defense Task Force, the Domenici-Rivlin commission, the Center for American Progress, the Cato Institute, and the co-chairs of the president's own deficit commission (popularly known as the Simpson-Bowles commission). Experts affiliated with these and other independent organizations should be consulted as a counter-weight to the Pentagon's "doomsday" rhetoric.

Whether or not one finds any of the specific proposals cited above persuasive, it is worth putting the $1 trillion figure in historical perspective. If cuts at that level were implemented, Pentagon spending would still be at 2007 levels. And 2007 was a very good year for the Pentagon.

Q. Do we need to spend large sums to "re-set" U.S. forces after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Advocates of large military budgets often argue that we can't cut back because our military equipment has been so battered from a decade of war that we will need substantial new investment to "re-set" and modernize our forces. A new report the Stimson Center suggests otherwise. It demonstrates that the $1 trillion spent on military procurement from FY2001 through FY2010 helped the Army replace or upgrade virtually all of its armored vehicles, and that the Air Force and Navy fulfilled the modernization goals they had set out at the beginning of the decade. These findings need to be taken into account in discussions of future defense needs.

When powerful institutions feel threatened, it is not unusual for them to make exaggerated claims and spin out worst-case scenarios in an effort to maintain their current positions. So it has been with the Pentagon and the arms industry during the debate over deficit reduction. Their claims should be investigated thoroughly and contrasted with the views of independent experts.



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