The Defense Budget: “You Used to Be Big”

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Shortly after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s penciled in some details on how he plans to cut $487 billion from the Pentagon budget over the coming decade (yielding a 6.8% increase in dollars spent between 2013 and 2017; a 1.6% cut when inflation is included) you’d have thunk he was a dentist practicing without Novocain.

Yet that sense of pain is tough to square with this chart issued by the Project on Defense Alternatives after Panetta spoke. The green line on the far right shows the Pentagon’s hoped-for spending levels, which hardly suggests a penurious Pentagon.

But the Republicans on Capitol Hill blasted him for “serious dangers and illusory savings” – Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, a senior member of the armed services committee” – as John Gage, head of the American Federation of Government Employees, declared it was “premature” to propose closing additional military bases. Even Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the armed services committee, said he couldn’t support closing domestic bases so long as overseas bases he deems wasteful are open (“Wasting money overseas: a license to keep wasting it at home”).

Under Panetta’s plan, troops will be trimmed (the Army is slated to fall from 570,000 to 490,000, while the Marines shrink from 202,000 to 182,000), although they will still be bigger than they were on 9/11. Procurement of big-ticket items, like the F-35 fighter, will slow, but not be cut (“pushed off to the right,” in Pentagon parlance, referring to the future on the right-hand side of any Defense Department budgetary timeline).

Pay and benefits for military personnel will be restrained, eventually. Congress, which in recent years has often seen fit to trump Pentagon proposals for pay increases by adding an additional 0.5% to the recommended hike, will object. Republicans will cite the proposal as evidence that Obama is driving the military to ruin; the lawmakers will grow mute when the Joint Chiefs make clear they endorse the plan (or quietly impugn their integrity).

DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

Panetta is basically proposing fairly tame cuts that resemble nothing so much as a dowager determined to keep the family spread, even as she auctions off all the furnishings that made it what it was. “The military will be smaller and leaner,” he said Thursday, “but it will be agile, flexible, rapidly deployable and technologically advanced.” Pentagon reporters have heard similar utterances since Harold Brown was running the building for Jimmy Carter.

Battleland likes to think of the latest budget imbroglio as a favorite old movie, perhaps a black-and-white classic like Sunset Boulevard. And there’s Defense Secretary Panetta, in the Gloria Swanson role:

Joe Gillis: You used to be big.

Norma Desmond: My requirements are big. It’s the resources that got small.