by Lawrence J. Korb

The defense budget should and can be reduced significantly without harming national security. In fact, a sensible reduction will actually increase national security because, as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen has pointed out, our burgeoning federal deficit is the greatest threat to national security.

While reducing projected levels of defense spending will not solve the country's massive federal deficit, defense must play a part. The current budget comprises 20 percent of overall spending, about the same as Social Security and more than 50 percent of the discretionary budget. Moreover, defense has accounted for two thirds of the increase in the discretionary budget over the last decade.

The budget is also now in a position where it can be safely reduced. In real dollars, it has grown for an unprecedented 13 consecutive years and is now higher than at any time since World War II.

Even excluding war costs, the regular or baseline budget has grown by about 50 percent over the past decade, the U.S. share of global military spending has risen from one third to about one half, and the United States now spends more on defense than the next 17 nations combined.

The Pentagon has already been ordered to cut its projected spending by $450 billion over the next decade and, if sequestration happens, the cuts could total $1 trillion. Despite the doomsday scenarios continually espoused by Secretary Panetta and the military chiefs, a cut of that size would amount to only 15 percent, in real terms return spending to its 2007 level, and still leave the United States above what we spent on average in the Cold War. Finally, such a cut would be far less than cuts made by Eisenhower (27 percent), Nixon (29 percent), and Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton (35 percent), which were done without jeopardizing security. For example, Eisenhower's Military Force faced down the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Total Force of active and reserves, created by Nixon, performed magnificently in the First and Second Gulf Wars, and the military Clinton bequeathed to W. Bush marched to Baghdad in three weeks.

Obviously a reduction of a trillion dollars would have to come in a balanced way and, as was done in previous drawdowns, it should be implemented through a phased approach and would involve all components of the budget.

To give but a few examples, our nuclear arsenal can be slashed from the current level of 5,000 to 311, as recommended by some Air Force strategists. Since we are withdrawing troops from the Middle East and are unlikely to need large armies there anytime soon, the size of our ground forces can be cut back by 100,000 to their pre-9/11 levels. Since the Cold war ended 20 years ago, the 80,000 troops still in Europe can be reduced to 20,000. Since the military increasingly relies on unmanned planes and precision-guided munitions, the number of carriers and Air Force fighters can be reduced by 25 percent.


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Reasonable Ways to Cut Defense Budget | Politics

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