In U.S. President Barack Obama's proposed fiscal year 2012 budget, released Feb. 14, the Department of Defense will lose $78 billion in spending it thought it would have over the next five years. The administration is touting the proposed cut as evidence of its commitment to overall belt-tightening; the White House claims the cuts will "[bring] defense spending down to zero real growth."
In truth, however, it's no such thing. The $671 billion that Defense Secretary Robert Gates requested for the Pentagon -- a department "base budget" of $553 billion, plus another $118 billion for ongoing wars -- may be less than he asked for last year, when you account for inflation. But the decline is the result of the shrinking costs of the Iraq war as the conflict is scaled down and soldiers return home, offsetting what is still a growing overall budget.
The $78 billion in "cuts," moreover, are at best tenuous. They include savings from a civilian employee pay freeze that the White House had already imposed, efficiency measures in areas like health care, projected personnel reductions years down the road, delays in the development of expensive weapons systems, and rejiggered estimates of inflation rates. Some of these are unpredictable, some may never happen, and all could be reversed by the next defense secretary. And even with these "savings," the Defense Department projects that its budget will grow in real terms for at least the next three fiscal years.
A budget that continues to grow is not one that contributes to deficit reduction. At a time when a small army of bipartisan fiscal reviews -- including the president's own deficit commission -- are recommending that real defense cuts be put on the table, Gates is doing his level best to keep that from happening.
But if the 2012 budget doesn't represent an actual reduction in defense spending, it does suggest something equally remarkable: that the upward trajectory of the Defense Department budget is reaching its inevitable end. Gates is engaged in the fiscal version of trench warfare -- and he is slowly being pushed back from his position, one trench at a time, as the pressures of deficit reduction and the end of the wars that have preoccupied the United States for nearly a decade are brought to bear on the Pentagon.
Such an idea would have been hard to imagine as recently as 2008, when the service chiefs wanted to add more than $50 billion to the fiscall 2010 defense budget. But Obama was elected president and the plan was shelved before it officially reached the White House's Office of Management and Budget; the Pentagon's appetite diminished. Nevertheless, Gates managed to keep real growth in his budget, albeit at a lower level, in fiscal 2010 and 2011.
This year, however, the Pentagon is reaching the top of the mountain -- and it's all downhill from here. Pressure to reduce the deficit is rising on Capitol Hill; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has called the growing debt "the single-biggest threat to our national security." Real cuts are coming, and the Defense Department needs to begin preparing for them.
For the services, shrinking budgets mean they will have to tackle the size of their forces and the hardware investments they plan for the future. While the Navy and the Air Force have already reduced the number of people in uniform, the Army and the Marine Corps have grown by 92,000 over the past decade. Gates has said they will lose 47,000 of those people, but not until fiscal 2015. But to rein in the budget, it will need to happen earlier. He has put on the table increasing enrollment fees for non-Medicare-eligible military retirees, but if his department faces real cuts, they are going to also have to take a hard look at restraining military pay (which has surged ahead of comparable civilian pay) and revisiting a generous retirement system.
Military hardware investments will also need to be reviewed more deeply. The department has made a start, allowing the F-22 fighter jet and the C-17 cargo plane production programs to end. The new budget takes more steps, slowing research and delaying production on the new F-35 fighter and putting the Marine Corps version of that program on probation for two years (part of Gates's $78 billion savings). He has proposed ending the Marines' new Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, but he is letting the Corps keep some of the money to invest in a new amphibious vehicle program -- even though the last amphibious landing the Marines executed was at Inchon in 1950. Navy shipbuilding schedules are being stretched out, with more to come.