The Proposed 2013 Defense Budget: “Shaving the Balloon”

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The Obama Administration came to a fork in the road this year on military spending: given the financial pressures facing the nation, it could have fundamentally set U.S. defense policy on a new path. Or it could have kept pretty much everything and just sucked it in as it tightened its belt.

It has elected to do the latter, and that’s not surprising. Going into an election year, the White House doesn’t want anything to mar its foreign-policy successes – chiefly killing Osama bin Laden and preventing any major terror strike on the U.S. in the more than three years Barack Obama has been in office. He has pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq and has begun doing the same in Afghanistan; only history will judge the wisdom of each move. Steady as she goes seems the safest route for a centrist to take right about now.

But for someone routinely called a liberal by those on the right, Obama’s 2013 budget submission reflects a decidedly conservative mindset:

— The Navy maintains its fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, and the armadas of support ships and aircraft needed to protect them and give them their punch.

— The Pentagon will continue to embrace its nuclear triad, that system of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles to ensure that if the enemy can eliminate one, or even two, legs in a pre-emptive, bolt-out-of-the-blue strike, the third remaining leg will remain to retaliate (Battleland is not making this up).

— The share of the budget dedicated to the Air Force and the Navy shrinks, which clashes with the well-publicized “pivot” from Europe to the Pacific and the necessary reliance on air and sea-power to handle that huge expanse of the globe. But overall, there is little change in how the services split the Pentagon pie. “It’s sort of ironic that pre-9/11 budget shares are about the same as they are in 2017,” Air Force Lieut. General Larry Spencer, director of force structure for the Joint Chiefs, told reporters (others might choose a different word, like predictable, or phrase, like unbreakable rice bowls).

“What is more interesting in this budget request are the major changes that were not made,” says Todd Harrison, defense-budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Overall, the budget request offers more continuity than change.” He cites “institutional inertia” that has the Navy preserving aircraft carriers while shorting submarines, and Air Force plans to scuttle “brand new aircraft in favor of maintaining older platforms.”

The balloon shaving – where skilled budgeteers try to save money by shaving the balloon’s walls – can be seen most clearly in the Pentagon’s compensation accounts. “Total savings in military pay and benefits amount to about $29 billion over the next five years,” the Pentagon said in its budget summary. “These changes amount to slightly more than 10% of required savings even though pay and benefits represent about one-third of the defense budget.” The Pentagon wants to keep paying the help well, even as it plans to cut more than 80,000 ground troops over the coming five years. “There’s no pay cuts and there’s no pay freezes,” Spencer said. “We’re really just slowing the growth in the out years.”

And it punted on the thorny issue of military retirement, which currently allows troops to leave after serving 20 years with a pension equal to half their basic pay. “For military retirement, we are not proposing any changes,” Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale said. “But we are asking Congress to set up a Military Retirement Modernization Commission that will have the time and staff to look at this very complicated area of military compensation and make recommendations.”

Republicans expressed outrage at what they see as the gutting of the nation’s military might. “The President’s budget is a clear articulation of Mr. Obama’s priorities,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the armed services committee, said in a statement. It “reduce resources for our struggling Armed Forces, and redirect them to exploding domestic bureaucracies.”

But his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, embraced the spending plan. “We can rationally evaluate our national security strategy, our defense expenditures, and the current set of missions we ask the military to undertake and come up with a strategy that enhances national security by spending taxpayer dollars more wisely and effectively,” he said. “I believe this budget meets that goal.”

The only slice of the Pentagon budget slated to grow under the Pentagon proposal is the operations and maintenance account. That’s the money that fuels readiness, and its growth – by some $11 billion – suggests Defense Secretary Leon Panetta isn’t going let the military wither on his watch. “It’s up 6% from fiscal ’12 to ’13,” Hale, the Pentagon’s top money counter said, “while the overall budget is down 1%.”

The Pentagon is seeking $525.4 billion in its standard, non-war budget, plus $88.5 billion for Afghanistan and the broader terror fight. While defense spending has peaked, the 2013 proposal is 77% more than the pre-9/11 Pentagon budget for 2001.

Hale insisted that the Pentagon is not planning for the sequester cuts, which will happen automatically early next year if Congress fails to come up with $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the coming decade. Critics have suggested the Pentagon’s failure to prepare for what is looking like an increasingly likely occurrence is military malpractice. “We are not planning,” Hale said Monday. “And I know nobody believes this, but it’s true. I think I’d know it if we were.”

The sequester is “not a good policy,” Hale said (as if this might be the first time the national government did something that isn’t good policy). “We need is the Congress as a whole to enact a balanced package of deficit reductions that the president can sign and that will replace sequester, and do it in a sensible way, rather than this kind of meat-axe approach that’s represented” by the sequester guillotine. “So no, we are not planning.”

Hale said he’s “hopeful” Congress will dodge the sequester bullet. As a former Navy officer and long-time budget marksman, Hale knows that hope is not supposed to be an element of military strategy. The military’s job is to prepare for the worst. When Congress is involved, you can usually count on it occurring.