No matter what happens on Capitol Hill before year's end with efforts to avoid big tax increases and budget cuts, deep reductions in military spending are under way and will continue for years to come, according to a group of defense experts and former top Pentagon officials.
William Lynn, former deputy secretary of defense, said Wednesday that the military is at a historic point similar to the years just after World War II, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the end of the Cold War, when its operations were dialed back.
Defense spending is expected to drop by 30 percent over a decade, said Gordon Adams, an American University professor and former official with the federal Office of Management and Budget.
The two were among several speakers at a forum organized by the U.S. Naval Institute and attended by uniformed and civilian military personnel and defense contractors to consider how automatic budget cuts and tax increases would affect defense and national security.
Defense has become a much smaller player in recent weeks in the larger debate on Capitol Hill that has focused on jobs and the economy, the panelists said. In the political discussions earlier this year, some in Congress tried to make the debate over automatic cuts about preserving defense programs.
But defense spending "isn't going to necessarily be a high priority in those negotiations," said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank. "In fact, it's likely to be a bargaining chip if it matters at all.... That is the reality that we're in."
The White House and Republicans and Democrats in Congress are trying to reach a deal that would halt or lessen the impact of large tax increases and billions in budget cuts, including defense, that are to begin in January. This "fiscal cliff," as it is called, could spark a new recession and increase unemployment, analysts have said.
Former Navy Secretary John Lehman said that nothing should be done to stop the chain of events.
"I have become a cliff-diver," said Lehman, who most recently was a military adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "I think we ought to let the government drive right over that cliff. The reason is because I think our system for providing the common defense is so broken that it would take a major crisis to be a catalyst to getting real change."
He argues that the upheaval would spark changes for the better because national leaders would be forced to rethink national defense. Too much money and too many resources are wasted, he said.
"I'm not a fatalist," he said. "It's not going to collapse. The Pentagon is a pretty strong building. There will be a lot of contract rewriting.... There will be a lot of irrational pain and hardship."
Adams said Hampton Roads won't be immune to cuts but, as a Navy-centric community, may be less affected than military communities tied to the Army, where cuts will be more severe.
Lynn said military operations in southeastern Virginia will remain vital to national defense.
"Norfolk is so fundamental to the Navy and the department's operations that I don't see any construct where Norfolk isn't going to play a prominent role," he said.