Ten Things to Know About the Coming Defense Cuts

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Defense Budget Cuts 101

If you haven’t been paying attention, this is where we stand on the Pentagon budget battle:

1. The Pentagon has already agreed to cut $450 billion over the coming decade from the roughly $7 trillion it had planned on getting. “These cuts are difficult and will require us to take some risks, but they are manageable,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote lawmakers this week. Likely targets are military health care and retirement accounts, cuts in the number of troops on active duty, and a reduction in the Pentagon’s planned $350 billion buy of more than 2,400 F-35 fighters.

2. If the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction –  the “super committee” – fails to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by November 23 – and Congress has not approved it by January 15 – sequestration will occur under the Budget Control Act that established the super committee in August.

3. Under sequestration, the Pentagon would have to double its planned cuts over the coming decade, from the already-agreed upon $450 billion to at least $900 billion, and perhaps $1 trillion or more.

4. Funding for wars would not be affected.

5. Military personnel accounts could be shielded from cuts, so long as deeper cuts were made in other military accounts to make up the difference.

6. Sequestration would not kick in until January 2013, meaning Congress would have 12 months to change the budget – to get under the sequestration top-line – or change the law – so it doesn’t have to obey it.

7. Panetta has said the Pentagon can not make the deeper cuts demanded under sequestration without hurting national security. If personnel accounts were protected, everything else would have to be cut by 23%, he said:

“Such a large cut, applied in such an indiscriminate manner, would render most of our ship and construction projects ‘unexecutable’ — you cannot buy three quarters of a ship or a building — and seriously damage our modernization efforts,” Panetta wrote the lawmakers. “We would also be forced to terminate most large procurement programs in order to accommodate modernization reductions that are likely to be required.” After 10 years of such reduced spending, he added, the U.S. military “would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

8. All told, the defense budget under sequestration would fall 14% from its peak in 2010 to its lowest level, in 2013, according to an analysis by Todd Harrison of the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

9. Nonetheless, the deeper cuts required under sequestration would only trim Pentagon spending back to 2007’s level, in 2013. That would represent an 11% cut from 2012’s budget. For the rest of the decade, the defense budget would grow as as much as inflation each year.

10. We’ll leave this last one to the folks over at Aviation Week, long a trusted and friendly journal for the military-industrial complex. This is from the editorial in the magazine’s latest issue:

Some of the hair-on-fire rhetoric of late has been unhelpful. The range of cuts being discussed is still well within the proportions of drawdowns after the ends of the Korean, Vietnam and Cold wars. Even the most drastic cuts will not end the U.S.’s superpower status.

Couldn’t have said it better.