Hovering over him like a cloud is the presidential campaign. A chorus of Republican candidates, as Mitt Romney already has done, will almost certainly take issue with the Obama administration’s defense policies and spending levels. While the economy will be central to the campaign debate, defense will be a close second.
The budget crunch goes far beyond numbers. This week, the Pentagon will produce a revised defense strategy that will provide the basis for the fiscal 2013 Defense Department budget. The numbers themselves will come later this month as part of President Obama’s budget and will reflect the second year of a 10-year plan to cut $489 billion in defense spending, made in response to August’s Budget Control Act.
It remains to be seen what further defense reductions will be made as Congress wrestles with the “sequestration” requirement in the August statute — across-the-board budget cuts of more than $1 trillion over 10 years, half of which are to come from national security spending. These cuts were triggered by the failure last fall of the congressional “supercommittee” to come up with a deficit-reduction plan.
In a Nov. 14 letter to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Panetta wrote that the Budget Control Act cuts “are difficult and will require us to take some risks, but they are manageable.” Further cuts under sequestration, he said, “would tie [the Defense Department’s] hands.” For instance, he said that across-the-board reductions would have to be applied equally to major construction programs, rendering “most of our ship and construction projects ‘unexecutable’ — you cannot buy three quarters of a ship or a building — and seriously damage our modernization efforts.”
Panetta has proposed that, if additional cuts are required, the Pentagon be allowed to pick and choose where they are made and not have to apply them across the board.
To reach the initial $489 billion in cuts, Panetta will have to defend before Congress the expected reductions in personnel for fiscal 2013, as well as the scaling back or ending of some weapons programs. All of these have their constituents inside and outside government — and especially on Capitol Hill.
How many F-35s do you buy; should you choose manned or unmanned weapons systems; how many nuclear supercarriers do you need; do you modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad — strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic submarines? While dealing with these questions, Panetta must also protect money for operations, maintenance, and research and development, the favorite areas for congressional budget cutters.