Defense Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday continued his vocal push back against the general consensus that significant cuts in military spending have to be part of the solution to the debt and deficit. During a press conference at the Pentagon, Panetta said further cuts beyond the $350 billion in defense spending reductions that are part of the debt ceiling deal would have disastrous consequences. He called the so-called “trigger” — $1.5 trillion in across-the-board cuts if Congress can’t agree on further reductions — a “doomsday mechanism.”
Yet Panetta didn’t really say why. One reporter asked if he is drawing up contingency plans should the trigger take effect, but Panetta said he hasn’t even begun “to consider what would happen” in that case. If he hasn’t considered it, how does he know it’s a “doomsday mechanism”?
Later, another reporter asked Panetta to identify the threats that justify his vision for military spending. Yet, again, Panetta was short on details:
PANETTA: Terrorism networks still remain a threat out there. Even though we’ve badly damaged al-Qaeda and their ability to conduct attacks in this country, the fact is that they still remain a threat. A threat coming out of Yemen, a threat coming out of Somalia and elsewhere. And that means that we have to continue the pressure to deal with the threat of al-Qaida. [...]
We’ve got two wars that we’re still dealing with in Afghanistan and Iraq. … In addition to that, we have the threats that come from Iran and North Korea. … And in addition to that, then the responsibility is, obviously, to be able to project our power in the world, in order to make sure that rising powers understand that the United States still has a strong defense.
First, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t even considered in the Pentagon’s baseline budget. And indeed, terrorism, Iran, and North Korea remain threats and the United States should continue to “project” its military power around the world. But Panetta never said what specific effects cuts to the defense budget would have. For example, the U.S. currently spends more on its military than the next 14 biggest spenders combined. Of those 14 countries, 12 are U.S. allies (six from NATO) and none are Iran or North Korea. How does the threat from Iran and North Korea justify that spending?
In fact, the Defense Department could easily make reductions beyond $350 billion over the next decade. Last year, the Sustainable Defense Task Force (SDTF) — which was chaired by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and staffed by “scholars from a broad ideological spectrum” — identified nearly $1 trillion in military spending cuts. Even Republican Senator Tom Coburn said last month that cutting $1 trillion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years would not be “super hard.” And CAP’s Larry Korb, Laura Conley and Alex Rothman identified $400 billion in cuts over the next 4 years.
Those who advocate for smart reductions in military spending have offered specifics on how to get there. Yet instead of countering with specifics of their own, defense spenders use scare tactics like warning that cuts would, as Panetta said yesterday, “do real damage to our security, our troops and their families.”