The nation’s top military official concedes that President Barack Obama’s plan to cut the Pentagon’s budget will leave the United States with a force that assumes more risk and is slower to respond to emergencies.
Last month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Obama’s plan to cut $487 billion from the defense budget over 10 years is reasonable, but wouldn’t be if Congress hadn’t passed the Budget Control Act last summer.
Despite Obama’s attempts to squarely place the blame on Congress, it did not force him to cut the defense budget at these levels. And while defense amounts to less than 20 percent of federal spending, it accounts for 50 percent of the president’s deficit-reduction efforts.
The Budget Control Act caps “security” spending at $684 billion for fiscal 2012 and at $686 billion for fiscal 2013. In addition to the Department of Defense, the security accounts include the State, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security departments. So while this year’s and next year’s security accounts have specific caps, from 2014 to 2021, the entire discretionary budget is subject to a cap. In other words, under the law it would be practically unavoidable to make some cuts in the defense budget since it is the bulk of those spending accounts, but the administration chose to do it at these levels.
As steep as the budget cuts are, if Congress refuses to raise taxes, Obama promises to authorize another $500 billion in defense cuts, which Panetta warns would hollow the force.
Not one person at the Senate Armed Services hearing — civilian, uniformed military, Democrat or Republican — argued that threats to the United States have grown more remote, and as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pointed out, they have only intensified. Lieberman flatly declared that the president’s defense budget leaves the United States assuming an “unacceptable” level of risk.
In an interview on “60 Minutes” in January, Panetta said it would take only a year for Iran to reach a nuclear weapons capability from the time it decides to do so, and another couple of years to produce a missile capable of carrying the warhead to the United States. That could be as early as 2015, five years before Obama’s missile defense plan is scheduled to harden homeland defenses against that threat.
The president’s new defense strategy said, “Homeland defense and support to civil authorities require strong, steady state force readiness, to include a robust missile defense capability.”
Yet in the budget he now proposes, the president slashed those very capabilities by $200 million, and mothballed the SBX radar, which would help homeland defense discriminate between lethal warheads and decoys meant to confuse the defensive system. Without this radar, U.S. defenses are less capable of handling increasingly complicated missile threats.
Panetta noted that observers should consider the budget as a whole, rather than program by program. True. But some defense platforms provide unique contributions to national security. Missile defense is the last line of defense against incoming missiles headed for American cities, and there are no alternatives.
Obama has also promised to do all he can to protect Israel from the threat of Iran, but if he has his way, the budget for cooperative missile defense programs that do just that will be halved.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.