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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.
The gap between the administration’s stated policies and its plans to implement them is growing considerably. In Washington, like everywhere else, how money is spent is indicative of what is truly important to those spending it.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, noted this in a highly critical opening statement at a February hearing: “Perhaps most concerning, in light of the administration’s own identification of the Asia-Pacific region as the focus of U.S. defense strategy, this budget would require the Navy to reduce shipbuilding by 28 percent.”
And there are many other aspects of Obama’s military budget that vie for the title “most concerning.”
One is that the proposition of cutting defense to help the economy may actually do more to hurt it. Not all cuts are savings.
States such as Florida — a critical election-year battleground — depend on military spending for tens of thousands of jobs.
According to Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, the defense cuts Obama plans will put roughly 350,000 Americans out of work, and if he cuts the additional $500 billion he threatens, as many as 1 million people could lose jobs.
Thankfully, the president’s budget is merely a suggestion to Congress, which controls the country’s purse strings, and a budget battle is brewing. McCain foreshadowed the fight.
“The administration has not led,” he said. “For the sake of our national security, Congress should.”
McCain is right, and if Congress fails to do so, perilous times are ahead.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.