Defense Discipline: Good; Trigger Cuts: Bad

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mullen can hardly be expected to step up to the mike and say they can live with $800-900 billion fewer dollars than the Department currently projects it would like to have for defense.

The didn’t disappoint yesterday. They can live with the roughly $400 billion in lower budgets than they planned over the decade. After all, that would be the savings from the current budget plan if Congress simply provided DOD with inflation growth every year over the next decade.

But from where I sit, the Department can also live with $900 billion in budget discipline. It is, after all, only 14% of the currently projected defense budgets over the decade, a more moderate build down than the one Secretary Panetta helped execute (though Secretary Cheney and Chairman Powell began it) in the 1990s.

In fact, from 1985 to 1998, defense spending (outlays) fell more than 35% in constant dollars. The force that remained, which was smaller, was also organized, coherent, and lethal. It was globally dominant and used Saddam Hussein as a speed bump in 2003. That was one of the best managed build-downs we have ever done; and it was the third one since 1950.

So build-downs are inevitable, and one deeper than the Secretary and Chairman want is also likely.

What is not inevitable and not desirable, and here I agree with the Secretary, is an automatic sequester of Pentagon (or any agency’s) funding, across the board.

That is what Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislated for all discretionary budgets in 1985. It only actually happened once because a mindless, across-the-board cut is no way to manage a build-down. The Secretary made explicit reference to that experience in his press conference.

Managing a build down is different from sequestering funds. Sometime after the first Tuesday in November 2012, there may be a chance to actually plan a budget agreement that makes a rational defense build-down possible. I don’t expect it before then; I don’t expect the commission to come up with one; it has no incentive to do so.

And, frankly, I don’t expect a sequester to happen, either. But I think the Secretary and the next Chairman should start thinking about how they will manage a deeper build-down than minus $400 billion from the current plan, because that is likely to happen.