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February 15, 2011

The Pentagon Always Wins
Posted by Michael Cohen

So there seems to be some argument going around that the Pentagon has engaged in some serious belt-tightening with its latest budget request. Honestly, I don't even have to read Gordon Adams take on this to know that is almost certainly not true, but the man's got the goods:

$78 billion in savings is a myth.  Six billion don’t happen until 2015 and 2015, the mythical budget years, when DOD says the Army and the Marines will start to roll back part of the 92,000 person increase that happened over the last decade.  Four billion comes from stretching out the schedule for the F-35 fighter, which could easily not happen. $12.5 billion comes from pocketing the White House decision to freeze civilian pay for the next three years, credit for a decision the Pentagon did not make.  $41.5 billion comes from “efficiencies” in what are called “defense-wide,” a mystery the Secretary has yet to unravel. And $14 billion is a truly “magic” number. It comes from revising downward DOD’s estimates of future inflation, a hardy, perennial argument between DOD and OMB.

Ezra Klein takes thinks a step further, by pointing out that $78 billion over 10 years really ain't that big of a deal when you consider that "domestic discretionary spending -- that's education, income security, food safety, environmental protection" gets a $400 billion haircut. In all the DoD base budget, not including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, actually increases by 6% in 2011. But then again it's not as if someone has gone out and actually found a trillion dollars in savings from the Pentagon budget over ten years . . . oh wait a minute.

It's hard to believe that during the Truman and Eisenhower years, these presidents calculated defense spending by using the "remainder method" - namely taking tax revenues, subtracting domestic spending and whatever was left over went to the Pentagon. Now we have the exact opposite situation with military expenditures taken up an astounding and indefensible 60% of the discretionary budget. (Imagine how much a greater a health care system, education system and infrastructure we'd have if we reversed these ratios).

The problem, however, isn't even the money and the competely non-serious reduction in defense spending.

The problem is the starting point from which these cuts are made - with an eye toward reducing the deficit rather than actually contemplating what our miltiary priorities should be (and to be clear the numbers being cut from the DoD budget are a mere rounding error in the context of more than $1 trillion deficit).

Instead of asking the questions: what is that we want the US military to do; what military capabalities should we prioritize; how should the US military support the country's larger foreign policy goals etc . . . our defense spending decision-making begins from the starting point that we need a really big military, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines should get support for most of their pet weapons programs and to cut defense spending when the country is at war would be to put American security at risk.

At no point does it appear that Pentagon officials sat down and said "what do we really need to keep the country safe." Instead, the discussion seems to have been "how do we shave a bit off the budget here and there to make it look like we're being fiscally responsible, but all the while prevent a more serious examination of our bloated defense budget." I don't blame the Pentagon at all for this; every other agency if they had the luxury would do the same - the problem is that no one from the White House or Congress demands that they do it.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that we must have reductions in Pentagon spending (although it's hard to see why not); it means we should think about whether the hundreds of billions we dole out to the Pentagon every year is keeping America secure and is in the nation's best interests. It's a conversation that we haven't even tried to have in more than 30 years. Instead we just pile more defense spending upon more defense spending . . . and demand that every other government agency think more judicously about how it spends the taxpayer's hard-earned dollars.

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Comments

he Pentagon can live with a smaller budget this year than the Obama administration originally requested, but the total – not counting war costs – cannot be less than $540 billion.

Just as an intellectual exercise, it might be useful for defense strategists to consider what the implications would be if we phased out 200 billion dollars from the military budget over several years, and whether that would have any truly serious impact on US security. But as you say, no one seems to want to have such a conversation about first principles.

They're like the untouchables. They're the chosen ones and we simply can't do anything about it. Money complicates everything.

Thank you for another great article.

y had the luxury would do the same - the problem is that no one from the White House or Congress demands that they do it.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that we must have reductions in Pentagon spending (although it's hard to see why not); it means we should think about whether the hundreds of billio

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They're like the untouchables.

They're like the untouchables. They're the chosen ones and we simply can't do anything about it. Money complicates everything.

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it might be useful for defense strategists to consider what the implications would be if we phased out 200 billion dollars from the military budget over several years

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