Budget Cutters Face Big Questions on Military Cuts

Deficit cutters almost all agree that Pentagon spending will have to take a serious hit in 2011—and for the foreseeable future. The cost of defending the U.S. has doubled since 9/11, to nearly $700 billion in the current fiscal year. But what to cut? Forget the usual empty vows to “eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse.” The real challenge is to identify the threats America must be ready for, and how fast, and then configure the armed forces accordingly. Those concerns come in varied form: military planners worry about China as a potential future adversary; about North Korea as a near-term threat to an important ally, South Korea; and about unpredictable long shots. What if Russia moved to reoccupy the Baltic states?

No one denies the need to be ready for such challenges, but members of Congress on both sides of the aisle want to roll back what they regard as America’s overcommitments around the world. Should the Army return to high-intensity conflict and leave the task of neutralizing Al Qaeda and its allies mostly to indigenous troops trained by U.S. special forces (as is happening in Yemen)? In any case, how big a standing Army does the U.S. need? The single biggest item in the Pentagon’s budget is the cost of a full-time career military of volunteers. Though reliance on reserves would cut those costs, some full-time, ready-to-deploy units are essential in a turbulent world. How many? What kind?

Military hardware poses equally tough issues. The Navy’s carrier battle groups, long the guarantors of freedom on the seas, take money away from fast seacraft that could put troops on the ground in a future flare-up. Similarly, the Air Force sees its super-tech F-22 as unsurpassed air cover for ground forces. But how does it balance that cost against its less glamorous, but no less vital, mission as the military’s global FedEx, transporting troops and equipment? The spending-priorities problem is only compounded by the advent of remote-controlled—even self-controlled—robotic weapons, of which America’s deadly efficient Predator drones are only prototypes. Congressional budget cutters will have to assign prices to all these unquantifiable factors. The only certainty is that their answers will differ wildly.