Congress, Pentagon Tussle Over Defense Spending Priorities

Republicans criticize defense cuts, but they were the ones who imposed limits on military spending.

General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions from congressmen during a hearing in Washington DC, March 6
General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions from congressmen during a hearing in Washington DC, March 6 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, America’s military chief, faced skeptical lawmakers last week after they had unveiled their department’s spending plans for the next year. Yet those same lawmakers are responsible for the budget austerity that has forced the Defense Department to make the very cuts they were critical of.

Under the Budget Control Act Congress passed three years ago, the Pentagon is allowed to spend about $496 billion in its annual defense budget — a measure that many defense experts believe puts an unnecessary and potentially dangerous cap on how the department can operate.

Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certainly agrees with that argument, making clear in a press briefing that artificial spending caps force the department to cut back on weapons platforms and personnel that would ordinarily remain untouched or even be expanded. “The smaller and less capable military,” he argued, “makes [our] obligations more difficult.” He added, “Most of our platforms and equipment will be older and our advantage in key domains will be eroded.”

Yet the Pentagon, by law, will have to cut spending. Secretary Hagel, who was appointed by President Barack Obama one year ago, has been trying to save money by eliminating loopholes and unnecessary costs, hoping that those savings can be reinvested in other areas of the military budget. Members of Congress, however, are not all sympathetic to the choices he had made.

As was demonstrated throughout hearings last week, virtually every congressman and senator has something to complain about. The ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, used the hearing as an opportunity to take another swipe at the Obama Administration’s defense priorities. President Obama’s gutting of the military, he claimed, is seen by adversaries like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin as a sign that America is no longer interested in maintaining unparalleled global influence.

“Throughout this administration,” said Inhofe, “I have also warned that if the United States does not maintain a ready and capable military, we would surrender our global influence and leave a vacuum that will be filled by Russia. I warned this day was coming and it is here.”

Inhofe was referring to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea last month, a peninsula that belongs to its former satellite state Ukraine but is populated mainly by ethnic Russians.

Buck McKeon, a Republican from California who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, had an equally strong rebuke to the defense cuts, calling them dangerous to America’s position in the world and a force multiplier for the likes of China and Russia, both of which are raising their military spending instead. “We must resist the president’s compulsion to continually trade national security for financial responsibility while getting neither,” he argued. “Peace through strength is more than a slogan.”

Dempsey and Hagel find themselves in the unenviable position of making tough compromises to the military’s force structure by virtue of congressional restrictions, only to be criticized for which platforms, branches and aircraft they chose to retire or decommission.

Over the coming weeks, that criticism will likely persist and grow stronger as other congressional committees get involved in negotiations and defense hawks in Congress continue to bash the Pentagon’s leadership for cutting the size of the Army, Marine Corps and National Guard.

But from the view of the White House and Pentagon, the best way Congress can solve the problem is by reforming or repealing the budget caps it itself put in place — before thousands more soldiers are phased out of the service.

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