Reasonable Defense Cuts Possible

Recently, former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) was nominated to succeed Leon Panetta as the Secretary of Defense. He would likely be presented a challenge faced by his predecessors Panetta and Robert Gates: how to find savings in the Defense Department and help make it more fiscally responsible. Admiral Mike Mullen has called the national debt "the greatest national security threat" to the U.S., and it will be crucial for the Pentagon to make smart and targeted reforms that can help rein in defense spending.

Lawmakers made significant progress under the Budget Control Act's caps on discretionary spending, which saved $350 billion compared to CBO's baseline at the time or nearly $500 billion relative to the FY 2012 President's budget. The Defense Department has proposed changes to help meet those caps, including slowing procurement of the F-35 fighter, withrawing two of four brigades in Europe, limiting military pay raises to private sector wage inflation, and introducing fees for TRICARE, among others. But given our fiscal path, more reforms may be needed.

To do this, the Defense Department is going to have to make some tough choices. A report from Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives, Reasonable Defense: A Sustainable Approach to Securing the Nation, presents $560 billion that could be saved over the next ten years, putting defense spending at post-sequester levels but through more targeted changes.

The plan use a mix of personnel and procurement reductions, including:

  • Reducing the active military force to 1.15 million personnel, a decrease of 19 percent from 2012 levels.
  • Reducing Reserve and National Guard forces to 755,000 personnel, a decrease of 11 percent from 2012 levels.
  • Having a peacetime overseas force of 115,000 personnel, a reduction of 40 percent from planned levels.
  • Reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 9 and reducing the Navy's fleet from 290 to 230 ships.
  • Reducing the number of aircraft by 9 percent.
  • Canceling the Marine and Navy versions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
  • Reducing the nuclear arsenal from 1970 to 900 warheads and cancelling the bomber leg of the nuclear triad

One of the notable features of the Reasonable Defense plan is that it does not reduce military pay or benefits like has been proposed by the White House/Pentagon and some other fiscal plans. The report says that doing so could add an additional $40 billion to $130 billion in savings over ten years.

The total savings and many of the policies in the Reasonable Defense approach are similar to ones contained in the 2010 report from the Sustainable Defense Task Force, of which Conetta was a member. Both of these reports show the that while it will not be easy -- requiring a re-thinking and/or downsizing of U.S. strategy -- there are certainly models of restraint out there that can achieve significant military savings.

This report, and others, show it’s possible to have well-thought and gradual reforms to DoD, unlike the sequester which would be abrupt and untargeted. We hope lawmakers can replace the sequester with a smarter plan that addresses all areas of the budget, including defense.

The full report from the Project of Defense Alternatives can be found here.