Should defense spending go over the fiscal cliff? | San Francisco Chronicle

There is no issue more defining along the red-blue divide than defense spending. For conservatives, there is never enough spending; for liberals, there is never enough defense cutting. But along with the serious look at entitlement spending suggested by the Bowles-Simpson committee, shouldn’t the federal government take a hard look at what we are spending and how we are spending on defense?

First — the United States spends a lot: 40 percent of worldwide defense spending and more than the next 14 top-spenders on defense combined. This allows the United States to retain its commanding presence astride the world, but at what cost?

Could the Pentagon spend less and achieve more — just as we ask of other government agencies and certainly is the standard cry in industry? Warfare and defense has changed, and the trend line points toward lean, mean and certainly very nimble warriors and war-making, not the heavy-on-hardware form of military campaigns favored in the past.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has suggested budget cuts of 8 percent over 10 years. If the federal government goes over the fiscal cliff, defense spending would be cut by 8 percent plus another $492 billion.

Think tanks that ponder long and hard about government spending think the cuts could go deeper than Panetta’s proposal by going for smaller forces and less hardware.

Then, do we need so much brass (and we are talking generals and admirals, not hardware)? The number of three-star and four-star generals has risen 23 percent in a decade and, as we learned from the Petraeus scandal, generals live large. Each may earn a relatively modest base salary ($140,000 to $180,000 a year) but comes with a full entourage of assistants (drivers, security, communications experts), which brings the tab to some $1 million per general. And then there is a general’s retirement pay, which adds up.

Federal law caps the number of generals at 658 (the total for all services) but there are exceptions allowing the secretary of defense to add 324 more. In 2011, the U.S. military had 964 general and flag officers. The U.S. military now has more generals than it had in World War II (13 million in uniform then, about 2.5 million now.)

So in the discussions over national debt and defense spending, do we cut defense more — or less?

via Should defense spending go over the fiscal cliff? | Opinion Shop | an blog.