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Pentagon’s “Austerity Budget” Ignores Second-Round Trigger Cuts

The President made some brief remarks at the Pentagon during the introduction of the new “austerity” defense budget. He stressed that the US will still have the most powerful fighting force in the world, that even after the cuts the defense budget would grow over the next five years, and that the overall budget will still amount to as much as the next ten largest militaries combined. So it’s hard to make the turn, given all those facts, that this is a real sacrifice on the part of the military. And the fact that the weapons systems will stay while the personnel to manage them will get cut just re-emphasizes that.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has concluded that the Army has to shrink even below current targets, dropping to 490,000 soldiers over the next decade, but that the United States should not cut any of its 11 aircraft carriers, according to Pentagon officials and military analysts briefed on the secretary’s budget proposals.

Military experts familiar with Mr. Panetta’s thinking said that Mr. Obama had opposed reducing the American carrier fleet to 10 from 11 because of what he sees as the need to have enough force in the Pacific Ocean to act as a counterweight to China […]

The new military strategy is driven by at least $450 billion in Pentagon budget cuts over the next decade. Another $500 billion in cuts could be ordered if Congress follows through on plans for deeper reductions.

As part of the new reality, Mr. Panetta is expected to propose cuts in coming weeks to next-generation weapons, including delays in purchases of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, one of the most expensive weapons programs in history. Delaying the F-35 would leave its factories open, giving the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, a chance to work out continuing problems in developing the plane while freeing up money that otherwise would be devoted to buying the warplane in the next year or two.

OK, so Panetta’s not even talking about cuts to the F-35, just delays in purchases. And the aircraft carrier number would stay the same. And most important to this whole strategy, the cuts announced today only incorporate those from the first half of the debt limit deal. They do not take into account the trigger. So the purpose, it seems to me, is to cry poor about the military, claim that the cuts are “painful but manageable,” so as to head off the bigger cuts mandated by the debt limit deal, and put forward a strategy of nullifying them.

But this is silly. There are clearly other cuts left on the table here, as the Project on Government Oversight finds, to the tune of at least $100 billion. The Frank-Paul report found more like $1 trillion in total cuts, double what the Pentagon announces today. The cuts still keep in place unnecessary weapons systems, wasteful private contracting, and the needless presence of US troops throughout Europe.

Heather Hurlburt argues that this is more of a strategy review, focused on moving out of the post-9/11 era of ground operations, rebalancing the presence toward Asia and the Pacific and away from Europe, and doing the analysis to make “hard choices” on the future rather than throwing money at every problem. But even she admits that these are not major changes, significantly smaller than the drawdown after Korea, Vietnam or the Cold War. And that holds even if the trigger gets pulled. The Pentagon budget would still be at FY2007 levels in a post-trigger environment.

The Republican rivals for the Presidential election will no doubt paint this as the President “gutting” the military. The truth is that this is an exceedingly modest reduction. Republicans decrying it actually help the strategy of avoiding the trigger cuts, by claiming a far more expansive consequence here than what is actually happening. Nobody should buy the crying poor from the Pentagon here.

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David Dayen

David Dayen