Defense Cuts Conundrum

Weighing the Hard Choices Ahead

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey during a briefing on the defense budget.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel listens as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey speaks during a briefing on the defense budget, Washington, D.C., April 2013. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Defense strategy is ultimately about making choices, which in peacetime often manifest themselves as decisions about the defense budget. As the budget gets squeezed, these choices become more difficult, and the current strategy may have to be modified or even abandoned. Yet without resource constraints, strategy would be unnecessary -- the military could simply throw more money at all its problems. Limited resources thus create the need for strategy, and as resources become more constrained, strategy becomes more important. The key strategic choice facing the Pentagon now is one of timing: whether to prioritize today’s military or tomorrow’s. Given the budget drawdown currently under way, the Pentagon cannot afford to do both -- it cannot get everything it wants.

With the $37 billion in sequestration cuts that took effect in 2013 and the reduction in war-related funding already in the works, the total U.S. defense budget has declined by 21 percent, adjusting for inflation, from its peak in 2010. If the Budget Control Act of 2011 remains in effect through its final year, 2021, and supplemental war funding ends by that time, the defense budget will have fallen by 33 percent in real terms. In comparison, the drawdown following the defense buildup of the 1980s slashed the defense budget by 35 percent, and the military reductions following the Vietnam and Korean wars decreased defense spending by 25 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

This drawdown, however, will be different. In previous buildups, as the budget increased, the size of the military grew as well. But during the most recent buildup, the size of the military did not significantly expand. From 1998 to 2010, the overall defense budget grew by 108 percent in real terms (or by 58 percent excluding war-related costs). Yet over the same period, the number of active-duty military personnel remained relatively flat, fluctuating between 1.4 and 1.5 million troops. The number of aircraft in the Air Force declined from 6,228 to 5,244, and the average age of its aircraft increased from 19.6 years to 24.4 years. The Navy reduced its fleet from 344 to 288. Instead of getting larger, the military became smaller, older, and more expensive. 

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