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How to cut the Pentagon budget better than sequestration does

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author most recently of “Healing the Wounded Giant: Maintaining Military Preeminence While Cutting the Defense Budget.”

A deeply flawed conventional wisdom is developing that despite warnings from former defense secretary Leon Panetta and others that the sky would fall if sequestration occurred, automatic spending cuts are not so bad after all. By this logic, not only should the cuts in defense as well as domestic “discretionary” accounts continue, but it would also be okay to implement automatic and across-the-board cuts in the next fiscal year, too, starting in October.

Yet the path we are on is far from acceptable.

While some of this year’s roughly $46 billion in defense cuts from sequestration reflect reasonable pruning, many of the reductions are not sustainable. Savings from policies such as dramatically reducing training for most military units this summer are not catastrophic if done once, but they cannot be continued without fundamentally jeopardizing military readiness.

Then there are savings that appear real but are not, such as deferred overhauls of major weaponry and deferred maintenance at bases. We can put off some repairs, but most will have to be done eventually — and may be more expensive if deferred. Then there are savings made on the backs of those with limited ability to make their voices heard: furloughs of civilian government employees top this list. In addition to being highly disruptive to government operations, these furloughs suggest that federal workers are second-class citizens (even as members of Congress can keep their entire paychecks for the year). Graduating students at public policy schools and other worthy individuals are being denied opportunities to work for the federal government due to hiring freezes.

Together, these temporary savings, faux savings and unfair savings represent at least half the $46 billion in cutbacks that the Defense Department is experiencing.

The military budget can be cut beyond the initial reductions from the 2011 Budget Control Act. But continued sequestration or reductions of comparable magnitude such as those resulting from the Simpson-Bowles proposals go too far. Such plans tend to make sweeping claims that, because defense spending remains reasonably high by historic and international standards, it can be cut much further. This reasoning is too vague for a world in which crises continue throughout the broader Middle East, U.S. forces remain engaged in Afghanistan, North Korea continues to nuclearize, and China continues its rise. It is time to get specific about further defense cuts.  

In that light, here is one set of proposals: 

●With Saddam Hussein gone from Iraq and operations winding down in Afghanistan, the size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps could be reduced modestly below their 1990s levels (to, say, 450,000 soldiers and 160,000 Marines); current plans are to keep them slightly above those levels. Ten-year savings relative to the administration’s existing plans could reach about $80 billion.

●Rather than increase its fleet as desired, the Navy could employ innovative approaches such as “sea swap,” by which some crews are rotated via airplane while ships stay forward deployed longer. Right now, the Navy keeps a single crew on a single ship in most cases, meaning that we waste lots of time sailing ships across oceans to maintain our overseas deployments. This and related ideas could eventually allow the Navy to get by with 260 to 270 ships rather than 286. Ten-year savings could be $25 billion.

●The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s current intended buy of nearly 2,500 airframes could be scaled back to roughly half that number, at an eventual annual savings of more than $5 billion. Cutting the program in half is adequate for the plausible high-end threats the nation faces; current plans are based too much on the need to replace a certain number of aging aircraft. (We can buy some cheaper planes and unmanned aircraft to replace the other half of the aging aircraft fleet.)

●Rather than design a new submarine to carry ballistic missiles, the Navy might simply refurbish the existing Trident submarine or reopen that production line. That and other nuclear force economies, including the gradual transition of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories away from the nuclear weapons design business, could yield $20 billion in 10-year savings in the national defense budget.  

●Military compensation could be streamlined further, despite Congress’s recent reluctance to go along with even the modest changes the administration proposed last year. For example, in addition to increasing health insurance premiums modestly, military pensions might be reformed, with somewhat lower payments for working-age military retirees having served 20 years or more and the introduction of a 401(k)-like plan for those who never reach 20 years. (These latter individuals currently receive nothing.) The combined effects of all these changes could exceed $50 billion over 10 years.

●At present the United States relies almost exclusively on aircraft carriers, each carrying about 72 aircraft, to have short-range jets in position for possible conflict (with Iran in particular). Over the past decade, land-based combat jets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq have largely come home. While the United States occasionally rotates fighter jets through the small states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and maintains command and control and support assets in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, permanent land-based combat power is very limited. By seeking two or more places to station Air Force combat jets continuously in Gulf states, Washington could facilitate a reduction of two aircraft carrier battle groups in its fleet. Cutting two such groups and associated aircraft could save perhaps $50 billion over a decade, as this option would take time to implement even if regional allies quickly approved it.

Other, more modest changes, including scaling back purchases of the Littoral Combat Ship, curtailing production of the V-22 Osprey, carrying out another round of base closures, streamlining the acquisition workforce by reducing paperwork requirements, adopting best practices for weapons maintenance more widely and constraining intelligence spending modestly could save perhaps $40 billion to $50 billion over a decade. Together, gross savings from these ideas could approach $200 billion to $250 billion if implemented in the face of (likely) congressional and allied skepticism. Note, this is at most half of what sequestration would require if left in place over 10 years.

This list reveals an unpleasant reality that must be faced: It is hard to cut the defense budget. It can be done, but it requires lots of specific changes that come with some degree of associated strategic risk. To be sure, my suggestions reflect subjective judgment, and perhaps we can reduce further. Those who think so need to start explaining how they would do so — and budget dealmakers need to stop treating defense funds like chips in a deficit-reduction poker game.

 
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