It is hard to know what to make of this year’s proposed U.S. defense budget. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel bills it as a novelty: “the first budget to fully reflect the transition DoD is making after 13 years of war.” The New York Times portrays it as an antiquity: “Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level,” reads its headline. Senator Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) paints it as a travesty: “ill-conceived, ill-designed, bad defense policy, detached from reality.” In truth, it is none of those things. Rather, the proposed budget represents a continuation of nearly three years of defense retrenchment, which is modest in scope and prudent in purpose.
For starters, there is far more continuity than novelty in contemporary retrenchment. Since early 2011, the Obama administration has consistently limited the defense burden by slowing military spending, reducing forces overseas, and privileging diplomatic statecraft. In January of that year, Robert Gates, who was secretary of defense at the time, announced an initial plan to trim defense spending by $78 billion over the next five years. The Budget Control Act, passed in August 2011, placed new caps on security-related spending, which resulted in an additional $24 billion being stripped from that year’s base defense budget. Matters came to a dramatic head, of course, in March 2013, when the failure to pass a deficit-reduction bill triggered sequestration, which threatened to cut some $600 billion from defense over the next nine years. As a result of all of these changes, the Pentagon’s spending has shrunk: Whereas it had planned an average base budget of $582 billion a year between 2011 and 2015, it is now on pace to spend an average of $509 billion a year over the same period. Retrenchment is nothing new: It is the new normal.
Nor is the extent of retrenchment unrealistic. Even with these dramatic reductions, the proposed 2015 base budget still exceeds its 2006 counterpart by almost $10 billion in constant dollar terms. And the base budget is only part of the picture. The administration will also request