Cutting Defense: Budget-Weenie Drill

Todd Harrison is one of the most thoughtful students of defense spending (okay, granted - it's not a very big group) in the country. An analyst at the independent, non-profit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, he's the kind of guy who drops things like this into the middle of his latest study:

I've never been particularly good with fractions, especially those involving trillions. But if you can get past the math, Harrison's making some key points that have been AWOL in much of the current debate over defense spending's admittedly bleak future. He warns how ill-prepared the country is to deal with the real possibility of deep cuts in the military budget:

- First of all, he says, this impending tank wreck can fairly be blamed on Congress:

The pattern of behavior observed since the 112th Congress was sworn-in in January has been one of management by crisis, beginning with the near government shutdown in April and the narrowly-avoided government default on August 2. These are not ideal conditions under which to conduct thoughtful and strategic discussions about how best to reduce defense spending in the future, and there is no reason to expect this pattern of behavior will change in the coming months. While there are many reasons members of Congress on both sides do not want the trigger provision to take effect—and many ways Congress could override it or work around it—all it takes for the trigger to be implemented is inaction and gridlock.

Congressional inaction and gridlock? Guess that means the Pentagon is doomed. But the bottom line is Congress has failed to do its job. As it did when it came to base-closings - assigning that mission to a panel to do the dirty work so lawmakers could keep their hands clean when it came to shutting down unneeded military posts - it once again has sub-contracted out the hard labor to the so-called super-committee - the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

- Second of all, if the super-committee fails to agree on the required cuts:

The trigger provision of the bill likely bounds the upper end of cuts to defense, resulting in a total reduction of 14 percent over ten years relative to the CBO baseline and a 16 percent reduction relative to the president’s FY 12 FYDP and projections. The department is not currently preparing for cuts of this magnitude, much less a reduction that would occur abruptly in FY 2013 rather than being phased in over time.

- Finally: while cuts of such magnitude would be damaging, they wouldn't gut the nation's defenses, at least not if carefully spent:

The trigger would return the base defense budget in FY 2013 to its FY 2007 level of funding, adjusting for inflation, and would hold it near that level for the following eight years.

Tough, yes. Disaster, no. You don't have to be a math whiz to understand that.

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