Previewing the Next Pentagon Budget

There simply is not enough money left to avoid direct consequences of defense budget cuts.

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Congress has provided a "sneak peek" at the forthcoming defense budget request by President Obama coming sometime in the next six weeks or so. While congressional appropriators were in the driver's seat in determining where the roughly $30 billion in defense cuts took place in the 2014 budget bill, staff worked closely with Pentagon officials so as not to diverge too wildly with where the 2015 budget is headed.

Pentagon leaders will continue to try to protect their largest programs as much as possible. That does not mean they will escape cuts, however. One notable trend from the past two budget years that will continue is that major programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will continue to absorb reductions but ultimately muddle along. Lawmakers cut over a half-billion dollars from the program and shrunk advance dollars for three aircraft in 2014. But Congress and the Pentagon are unlikely to make large-scale adjustments to the F-35 program as it marches toward initial operating capability.

Similarly shipbuilding is seeing minor hits but is still a top priority across Washington. Shipbuilding received a generous 8 percent hike over the president's request in the giant spending bill passed this week. This was due largely to a near-billion dollar plus-up for the Navy's popular Virginia-class attack submarine program. One shipbuilding program that may not be as lucky next year, however, is the Littoral Combat Ship program. According to Defense News, officials have directed 20 ships cut from the planned buy of 52 by 2026 – a nearly 40 percent drop in purchases.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

The Army is expected to take the steepest cuts in the forthcoming budget. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Sandy Winnefeld was clear in September speaking to the Association of the United States Army. He expressed skepticism on the need for forces sized for large-scale operations, noting "we don't see a situation ... in the real world where we will have a long counterinsurgency campaign." He clearly implied that the Army must expect the number of active duty soldiers to fall even further, faster.

In fact, as General James Barclay put it, declining resources mean that the service is currently on a path to an active duty force of 420,000 by 2019 – down over 14 percent from the already reduced goal of 490,000.

The Army's troubles don't end there. In the 2014 spending bill, legislators slashed the Army's request for its Ground Combat Vehicle program from nearly $600 million to only $100 million. This all but paves the way for its cancellation.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Even with the rapid drawdown in manpower, the budget math is still overwhelming. As a result, defense officials have signaled that they may propose bolder ideas to reform military compensation. Early reports indicate possible changes to Basic Allowance Housing, areas qualified for imminent danger pay, altering some fees at commissaries and even changes at Defense Department schools in the U.S.

The real challenge for Congress will be their ability to actually accept the cuts they have approved once the specific consequences are presented to them. If past years are any indicator, the fighting will continue. Congress has been all for defense budget cuts but not specific changes when it comes to their district – whether that is a base closure round, early retirement of cruisers or close air support fighter aircraft, reductions in reserve component personnel and more. But there simply is not enough money left to avoid direct consequences – not only for our national defense strategy, those in uniform, and the industrial base but now members of Congress.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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