The Defense Build-Down Is Here

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President Obama’s latest announcement that he intends to seek $400 billion in reductions from his current security funding plans between FY 2012 and 2023 is only the latest signal that a defense build-down is under way.  What is missing is a detailed plan for managing the build-down; that will be the responsibility of the next Secretary of Defense, since Bob Gates is likely to leave this summer.

The build-down started in 2009, when the Obama transition rejected the desire of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to grow defense by more than $50 billion in FY 2010.  Instead, setting aside the costs of the wars, the FY 2010 budget went up only slightly above inflation.  The next step was Secretary Gates announcing that he was cutting the five-year plan by $178 billion and contributing $78 billion of that to deficit reduction.

Even those two steps did not really cut the defense budget; they only lowered the projected rate of growth.  Congress took the next step in early April, when it finally passed a federal budget for FY 2011, including $20 billion in cuts from the request Secretary Gates sent up last year.  Still, defense will grow $5 billion this year, but that is now slightly below inflation, a cut by anyone’s measure.

Chairman Paul Ryan of the House Budget Committee seemed to stop action with a budget resolution, passed by the House last week, that accepted the President’s old budget projection, contained in the administration’s budget request last February.   But the President has trumped that with his latest announcement.

We are still slouching toward the inevitable build-down.  Calculations we have done at the Stimson Center show that the President’s goal could be reached easily, by starting with the FY 2011 budget agreement and growing defense budgets by inflation every year through FY 2023 (see .  There would even be some left over.   What’s more, the President’s announcement made it clear that he was talking about “security spending,” which includes diplomacy, foreign assistance, nuclear weapons (Energy Department), veterans affairs and homeland security, as well as defense.

But these are all opening bids in the inevitable game of a build-down, driven by two forces: the urgent need to get the US fiscal house in order, and the loss of interest in military adventures overseas as we begin return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A build-down is both inevitable and timely.  The Defense Department has had luxurious resources for ten years and, as Adm. Mike Mullen put it on January 6, 2011, doubling the defense budget has had harmful consequences inside the building: “we’ve lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.”

The time has come; the time is now.  Missions, force size, investments, personnel policies, and the truly long-pole in the planning tent – defense infrastructure – should all be on the table.   And we have done it before.  The Secretary likes to say we have always gotten it wrong (we build down, are surprised, then have to build back up).  He needs a new historian.  Since Korea, America has chosen its wars, for better or worse, and supplied the forces to fight them.  We haven’t been surprised in decades and sometimes we use force effectively.

So we can manage a build down.  The Bush I administration took 500,000 troops out of the force size and cut the defense budget 25%, Colin Powell has said (CNN, State of the Union, January 23, 2011).  And for all the complaining in the 1990s, the force that remained used Saddam Hussein’s military as a speed bump in 2003.

We can manage it again, much deeper than President Obama has suggested, and leave in place a globally dominant military capability.  But it will take planning. The next Secretary of Defense will have a tall order.