APPROACH 2: MAKE MAJOR STRATEGIC CHANGES
The other approach to saving money in the defense budget, necessary if big cuts like those proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission or required by sequestration are to happen, would involve not only the kinds of economies outlined above in approach 1, but also a strategic shift -- a more profound reorientation of America's role in the world. It would be an overstatement to say that it would emasculate the country, deprive it of superpower status, or require explicit abandonment of any ally. But it would accept substantially greater risk.
One of the least debilitating ways to strategically reorient the military would be to cut the active-duty Army and Marine Corps by 25 percent, going much further than the administration now plans (and much further than approach 1 would do). This would likely deprive the nation of the prompt capacity to conduct anything more than one large ground operation at a time. Under this approach, the active-duty Army might wind up with 400,000 soldiers, in contrast to more than half a million now and to some 475,000 in the Clinton and early Bush years (and, as noted before, to the currently planned level of 490,000). This would be enough for one major operation, like the unlikely but not unthinkable contingency of another war in Korea. It would also likely keep the Army large enough to retain its prestige as the world's best ground combat force and to facilitate foreign engagement globally in peacetime. But it would not allow enough capability for that plus an ongoing mission similar to the one in Afghanistan today -- or a substantial role in a future Syria operation, for example. It would effectively move ground-force planning away from the two-war standard that has, however imperfectly and inexactly, undergirded American military strategy for decades.
Another major, but not catastrophic, change could be in military compensation. No one likes to talk about this at a time of war, given the amazing service of our all-volunteer force. But with war winding down, perhaps this can be rethought, as long as help for wounded veterans and survivors is left untouched, and if entitlement reform in other parts of the federal budget creates a national sense of shared sacrifice. Military compensation, now $30,000 greater per person per year than at the start of the Bush administration, might be gradually returned towards 2001 levels. This could not be done quickly -- and perhaps not at all. Even scaling real military compensation back by $10,000 per trooper through dramatic changes to health care and retirement policies, plus indefinitely freezing military pay, would be hard enough for our political system to consider. So there would be huge challenges associated with reversing most of the $30,000 increase that may make it inadvisable. Still, in strictly accounting terms at least, it is not unthinkable.
Each of these initiatives could save $25 billion to $30 billion a year, but they would take time to phase in, meaning combined savings above and beyond those in Approach 1 of perhaps another $300 billion over the next ten years. All told, adding together savings from approach 1 with these additional cuts in approach 2, we would then approach the additional $500 billion in defense cuts as required by sequestration or Simpson-Bowles.
To me, the reforms outlined in Approach 1 above, while difficult, are worth trying given the nation's fiscal plight; however, the risks associated with Approach 2 would not be worth the benefits. But the point is to have the debate on these terms. It is time we stopped casually tossing around big defense budget saving numbers, or pretending that magical reforms in how the Pentagon does business can quickly yield huge savings painlessly, and instead talk about how any cuts to defense spending comport with what we're asking the military to do.