August 03, 2011

Pentagon’s Worst Nightmare

During a decade of warfare, the Pentagon mostly had its way with budgets, as Congress was reluctant to turn down many spending requests for troops in the field. There was billions here for IED-detection and billions there for weapons like the F-35 joint strike fighter, the Virginia class of submarines, or the Predator drone.

Sometimes defense officials even got money for projects they didn’t request, such as armored vehicles known as MRAPs (mine-resistant and ambush-protected) that top military officials said were not a good investment. The end result was the Pentagon’s base budget swelled from $307 billion in 2001 to $529 billion this year, a 72 percent increase over 10 years.

And while the Pentagon was just beginning to trim its spending over the last year, the debt deal approved by Congress this week raises the possibility of steeper cuts between $350 billion and $800 billion over the next decade. And that has left even the most veteran Pentagon budget watchers surprised.

“This is the Pentagon’s worst nightmare,” says Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security.

“It’s chaos,” adds the Heritage Foundation’s Mackenzie Eaglen. “Like Upside-Down Day at the Pentagon.”

Pentagon officials are already running budget drills to game out the possible scenarios, while lobbyists for defense contractors plot how to spare their favorite projects.

“Historically, defense companies spend a great deal of money on messaging for their own programs—their pet rocks,” says Michael Herson, president of American Defense International, a lobbying firm with clients such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. “But now people are starting to wake up to the fact that we’re going to have to work together to fight for the top line.”

It is clear that the defense budget will be cut, though whether dramatically or modestly depends on how things play out. Even with minor cuts, military items may be lost, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, “a $300 billion program that is both behind schedule and over cost,” says Sharp. In addition, Pentagon officials may decide to take stock of current plans and money, roughly $200 billion, that is needed to modernize their stockpile of nuclear weapons.

As part of a compromise reached in Washington, a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will be assembled by Congress to find up to $1.5 trillion in deficit savings by the end of the year. That’s on top of the $900 billion in deficit savings already identified in the legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama on Tuesday. The committee will comprise six Democrats and six Republicans, and they will try to achieve their goal in part by cutting resources from the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies that help protect national security.

The committee was created as a way to smooth negotiations over the budget, but it creates a precarious situation for defense officials. If the committee members fail to reach an agreement in the fall, an automated system of reductions known as a “trigger mechanism” will be enacted. This would be bad news for Pentagon officials, since it will mean they will have to carry a larger share of the cost-cutting, as much as $500 billion.

Luckily, for military boosters at least, the Defense Department is headed by a pillar of the Washington establishment. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is “a hell of a good manager,” says American University’s Gordon Adams, who worked for him at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s. Panetta also is “liked in Congress, on both sides of the aisle.” These traits will come in handy during the “budgeting trench warfare,” as Adams describes things.

Nearly everyone in Washington, including Panetta, has known for some time that the defense budget would be cut: Al Qaeda is now vanquished, or nearly so, as Americans learned recently from White House officials, and troops are coming home from Afghanistan. Analysts believe the defense cuts for the short term will be modest, and that cuts over the next decade or so may sound nasty, but they will be determined by the next president and consequently may never be enacted.

To be sure, the Pentagon can be cut—through attrition, for example, or through the elimination of the F-35.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to wonder about the concerted effort to slash the defense budget, accompanied by the scarcely hidden glee of some analysts. (“These guys have been reaping a bonanza,” Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project told me.) Their enthusiasm underscores the gap between them and the men and women who are fighting in South Asia, Africa, and beyond.

The reality of their world is seen in Hinesville, Ga.; Fort Carson, Colo.; and in other places around the country where soldiers have been deployed four or five times, leaving behind wrecked cars, abandoned cats, and children who “can’t stop crying, and they don’t know why,” as a school counselor at Patriot Elementary School in Fort Carson once told me. Cuts that make sense during discussions on Capitol Hill can seem callous in Hinesville.

Indeed, many analysts in Washington say hacking up the defense budget is a bad idea, not only for military families, but also for the nation, unless, as Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, says, “you can promise that there will be nothing but peace, love, and tie-dye for the next 12 years.” Otherwise, he says, Americans will be in trouble, since the reduced budget will mean the United States will have to retreat from its role as superpower.

“Do you want to share the world with the Chinese or with nuclear-armed Iran?” he says. “The only thing worse than Americans running the world is someone else running the world.”

For Pentagon officials and many defense analysts, that is a dark scenario and far worse than any budget crisis.