Wonks: Room for cuts, but not through sequester | Politico Pro

By: Kate Brannen

The wonks agree: The Pentagon has many places to look to save money, but sequestration is not the way to do it.

The total amount of cuts to the Pentagon under sequestration — about $1 trillion over the next decade — is doable, they say. But the way sequestration would cut — arbitrarily and too quickly — is a terrible way to do business.

Instead, reports from the Center for American Progress, and now the Stimson Center and the Project on Defense Alternatives, all argue for spending cuts stretched out over the next five to 10 years that still allow the Pentagon to meet its strategic objectives.

The reports share some common themes and recommendations:

Scale back today’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. Make the Army smaller and avoid protracted ground wars. Continue to cut DoD waste and use manpower more efficiently. Bring troops back to the United States rather than keeping them permanently stationed overseas.

“The vast majority of people in Washington understand the fiscal crisis we’re facing and the need for defense to play a part in its resolution,” said Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, in an interview with POLITICO.

Blechman, along with 14 other defense strategists, former military officers and international affairs experts — including retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright and retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula — met over the last year to come up with a new defense strategy. The study was funded through a grant from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

The Stimson Center unveiled the final product — a glossy report, titled “A New U.S. Defense Strategy for a New Era: Military Superiority, Agility and Efficiency” — at the National Press Club on Thursday.

The group says it endorses the changes DoD is already making to rebalance its forces toward the Asia-Pacific region, but argues that “more far-ranging changes should be implemented over time.”

The report concludes that a military that is smaller, but remains expeditionary and able to respond quickly to problems around the world, would better serve the country.

The last 10 years have shown what the U.S. military is very good at, while at the same time exposing other areas where it’s been less successful, Blechman said.

“[U.S. forces] are incredible in terms of their reach, their agility, their flexibility, their ability to reach out anywhere, almost instantly, and do a lot of damage or to do humanitarian aid, and to sustain that for a period of time,” Blechman said.

Those capabilities should be supported and enhanced over the next 10 years, according to the Stimson Center report.

What should be avoided are long, protracted wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blechman said.

“We can’t impose governance, security and democracy in foreign societies with different values that have internal conflicts, and that haven’t particularly invited us in to do that. It’s not a job that the military is well suited for,” he said.

The Army should preserve the counterinsurgency lessons it’s learned in its doctrine and at its schools, but it should not be sized to fight protracted ground wars, Blechman said. Therefore, the Army could scale back to 30 brigade combat teams, which is just a few fewer than the Army is already considering.

A report from the Project on Defense Alternatives, also released Thursday, agrees that costly nation-building efforts and counterinsurgency campaigns should be jettisoned.

It advocates for a national security budget that is similar in size to what would happen under sequestration, but proposes to phase in the spending cuts over five years, which is a more dramatic change than the Stimson Center report recommends.

The Project on Defense Alternatives sees the defense budget stabilizing at about $462 billion in today’s dollars.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who’s been an outspoken advocate for scaling back spending at the Pentagon, endorsed the plan.

“This report makes the case, very persuasively, that we can save money if we scale back the U.S. assertion that we need to be everywhere. We’re overextended,” Frank told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

The Stimson Center report also embraces a small nuclear weapons arsenal. It recommends making those reductions through a new bilateral treaty with Russia, which would also be required to make similar reductions.

Blechman said he was surprised how easily the group agreed to the recommendation to reduce nuclear weapons.

Some members of the group, like Cartwright, argued for even steeper cuts, Blechman said.

A recent paper from the Ploughshares Fund projects that current plans for nuclear weapons and related programs could cost approximately $640 billion over the next decade.

The Ploughshares Fund, whose goal is a world free of nuclear weapons, is mounting an ad campaign it’s calling the “$640 billion question,” which asks whether the government should spend that money on nuclear weapons or invest it in other equipment the military needs.

This week saw groups target some of the larger strategic questions to some of the sillier aspects of defense spending.

In a report that grabbed the attention of journalists, budget hawk Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) outlined at least $69 billion in savings in areas of the defense budget that he says have little to do with national security.

For example, DoD has funded a project aimed at improving the flavor of beef jerky. It’s also produced a reality cooking show, called “Grill It Safe.”

“We must eliminate waste and duplication to refocus the Pentagon to its true mission: fighting and winning the nation’s wars,” Coburn said in the report, which was released Thursday.

Gordon Adams, who worked at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration, applauded Coburn’s report, but told POLITICO it didn’t address the more serious instances of DoD mission creep, like the development aid, governance assistance funds and public diplomacy programs that can be found in the defense budget.

Adams was part of the task force that worked on the Stimson Center report.

Another area where there is consensus is DoD’s escalating personnel costs.

On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office reported the extent to which these costs are eating up the Pentagon’s budget

CBO said that even when adjusted for inflation, military pay and health care costs have risen steadily over the last decade, sometimes faster than salaries and wages in the private sector. It also noted that while 1.4 million military personnel serve on active duty, a total of nearly 10 million people are eligible for military health benefits.

Reforms in this area could and should be implemented, Blechman said, but at the same time Iraq and Afghanistan vets should be provided the medical care, and vocational and educational support they deserve.

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