A new era of budget-cutting has begun in Washington, and the Pentagon is in the crosshairs. Desperate to reduce expenditures anywhere they can, the country's elected leaders are turning to national defense. In 2011, the Pentagon's base budget was $530 billion, plus an additional $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Total defense spending is now 73 percent higher than in 2001 in real terms, and it makes up about 20 percent of the federal budget -- a figure exceeded only by Social Security.
Last summer's debt ceiling debate and the resulting Budget Control Act have put Congress on a path to cut defense spending by as much as $882 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The exact size of the cuts depends on future decisions by Congress, including those related to the super committee's ongoing deliberations. Regardless of the outcome, the Pentagon anticipates that spending caps in the Budget Control Act will cut the military's non-war budget by at least $450 billion over ten years.
While the defense budget does constitute a huge slice of federal spending, it has become a target in part because Americans overestimate its contribution to the country's fiscal woes. In a June 2011 Pew poll, 60 percent of respondents identified the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the leading cause of a "great deal" of U.S. indebtedness. In fact, both the George W. Bush administration's tax cuts and the global financial crisis bear more of the responsibility; they added far more to America's debt than war and non-war defense spending.
Washington's national security community has wasted no time sounding the alarm. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee released a report arguing that cuts beyond $450 billion over the next decade would downgrade the United States from a superpower to a regional power. The report went so far as to suggest that budget reductions could require reinstituting the draft to make up for troops who would leave the service if their benefits were cut or their deployments were