$1 Trillion in Cuts Looming

Panetta warns of a "hollow force" / Air Force photo by Jacob N. Bailey

It hardly seemed possible when we first broached the possibility in April that defense spending could be cut by $1 trillion over the coming decade. But there it was Wednesday in the latest issue of National Journal, one of those heavy-duty – and costly – magazines read by all of Washington's policy wonks:

The Pentagon is understandably nervous that the congressional deficit-reduction super committee will deadlock in November or its compromise deal will be voted down, automatically triggering as much as $1 trillion in cuts to defense spending over the next decade.

Just because something appears in that august magazine doesn't mean it is going to happen, but it does certify the emerging conventional wisdom.

The prospect certainly has Leon Panetta, the new defense secretary, rattled. "Very simply, it would result in hollowing out the force," he said Tuesday. "It would terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world." That, of course, depends entirely on how you define "threats." The current U.S. definition of a threat is so elastic it, by necessity, requires a substantial budget to deal with them all.

It's tough to believe how quickly the debate on defense has shifted over the past four months. That's due, in no small part, because the economy remains in submarine mode, and the public is increasingly tired of the wars and the growing number of casualties coming out of Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent $1.3 trillion in the decade after 9/11 waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, piled atop non-war military spending approaching $5 trillion. Current military spending is about $700 billion annually (closer to $1 trillion when veterans' care and homeland security are added to the tab). Average U.S. military spending now exceeds what the country spent during the average Cold War year.

Obama and Congress already have agreed to about $400 billion in cuts – actually, a reduction in the rate of growth – over the coming decade. But that's now looking like a down payment. The 12-member super committee – officially the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – is made up of six Democrats who generally favor entitlements and six Republicans who are split between Pentagon backers and tax-cutting advocates. That doesn't bode well for defense budgets. And the failure of the panel to agree on $1.2 trillion in additional cuts – or congressional failure to approve them – means $600 billion more could be slashed from the Pentagon's coffers.

It's plain what is going to happen: with personnel accounting for nearly 50 cents of every dollar spent by the Pentagon, its so-called "end strength" – the number of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines – will have to be cut. Fewer troops will require fewer weapons, meaning across the board cuts in surviving systems are guaranteed, along with a few major sacrificial lambs. They could well include new carriers for the Navy as well as the Marine version of the F-35 fighter. And that is the best-case scenario.

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