US Defense Hawks Prepare for Budget Fight

Lawmakers worry that deficit reduction efforts could lead to deep military spending cuts.

Republican senator John McCain of Arizona ask a question during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010
Republican senator John McCain of Arizona ask a question during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

National security hawks in Congress are preparing for a protracted fight over military spending as the Defense Department could face up to $850 billion worth of reductions over the coming decade.

As part of a bipartisan budget agreement for raising the nation’s legal debt limit earlier this month, defense could be cut by up to $500 billion unless lawmakers from both political parties reach a compromise that reduces the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. Whatever military spending reductions are agreed to by a congressional “supercommittee” tasked with finding those cuts, they will come on top of some $350 billion in savings previously identified by defense secretary Robert Gates and enacted by Congress nearly two weeks ago.

Republican senator John McCain, who was Barack Obama’s rival for the presidency during the 2008 election, criticized the rising pressure to cut military spending without considering the impact on strategy. “Defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis,” he has said, “and if the Congress and the president act on that flawed assumption, they will create a situation that is truly unaffordable — the hollowing out of American military power and the loss of faith of our military members.”

Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, who, like McCain, is a noted interventionist despite otherwise caucusing with the Democrats, similarly cautioned against deep defense cuts although he voted in favor of the $350 billion worth of reductions.

In a statement released after that vote, the Connecticut legislator said to be “very concerned about rumors that the debt agreement now being negotiated will disproportionately cut defense spending and result in unacceptably high risk to our national security.”

“By exposing critical defense programs to disproportionate cuts as part of the ‘trigger mechanism,’ there is a clear risk that key defense programs will be hollowed out,” former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton added.

Defense secretary Leon Panetta even forecast “doomsday” if the military were forced to cut close to $1 trillion, telling a press conference last Friday that it would “do real damage to our security, our troops and their families and our ability to protect the nation.” The $350 billion in reductions, by contrast, were described by Panetta as in line with what top military officials had expected.

Reining in defense spending has proven difficult as neither the incumbent administration nor conservatives in opposition want to jeopardize — or be perceived as jeopardizing — national security. Even in the worst case scenario of a total of $850 billion in cuts to future spending growth over the next decade, the Pentagon’s budget could continue to grow however.

Since September 11, 2001, military spending has increased by almost 7 percent a year, up from $291 billion ten years ago to almost $700 billion today. For 2012, the Defense Department has requested an appropriation of $671 billion including $118 billion to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in order for the military to execute its base budget plans over the next decade, it needs a total of $597 billion (or 11 percent) more than if funding was held at the 2011 level. Military spending would rise by almost $60 billion a year on average unless entire weapons programs were reconsidered or pay and benefits for servicemen and -women significantly reduced.