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Out come the long knives for defense

Now that the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling is fast approaching, debt reduction negotiations are getting serious. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission had recommended nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts across a decade. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his own plan that would entail similar cuts to defense in the context of an even larger $9 trillion debt reduction. President Obama, while saying that Bowles-Simpson went too far, committed himself to an arbitrary $400 billion cut to defense across 12 years, the only concrete cuts to spending that he identified in his April 13th speech. The deal taking shape among the Gang of Six of budget leaders in the Senate will result in an $800 billion cut to defense across a decade. The Project for Government Oversight, the Sustainable Defense Task Force, the Stimson Center, and Center for American Progress all also have offered plans for cuts.

Defense spending will be further cut; that seems inevitable in the current, beneficial, climate of reducing government spending. Moreover, to take our military leadership at their word, debt reduction is our country's gravest national security threat, a case Admiral Mullen has repeatedly made. The 2010 Joint Forces Command planning guidance, called the Joint Operations Environment, likewise warned that our debt is not only a strategic liability, but unless brought under control will crowd out all discretionary spending -- including defense -- as debt service payments dominate.

Given the magnitude of our defense spending and the relatively advantageous position we occupy compared to the magnitude of threats facing the United States, we can afford to accept near-term risk by cutting defense spending in order to solve the larger strategic problem of our national indebtedness.

The question is how much, and what, to cut. Here we ought to be intensely skeptical of debt hawks telling the Department of Defense what to cut. The Simpson Bowles Commission is not ideally suited to make the determination of whether manned aviation is a continuing requirement for warfighting. The major challenge facing the Pentagon is to design a robust defense program that can both win our current wars, prepare for future wars of different types than we are currently fighting, and engaging in activities that shape the nature of the security environment and affect the choices of potential enemies.

Carving weapons systems out of the mix does not rebalance the force in ways necessary to mitigate risk. Only a complete program can do that. For example, eliminating the F-22 (something I favor) will leave a gap in our ability to perform crucial missions; that shortfall must be compensated for by other weapons or capabilities and the resulting balance of savings may or may not prove cost effective or manageable with the force size and posture it figures into.

Rather than a careful analysis of requirements, President Obama has encouraged a reckless approach to defense. When introducing his second pass at a budget proposal, the president announced a completely arbitrary $400 billion reduction in defense spending. Last week president Obama said "The nice thing about the defense budget is it's so big, it's so huge, that, you know, a one percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget...I'm exaggerating. But it's so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of headroom to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that." 

The president evinced no acknowledgement of the fact that DOD actually does an awful lot more than the Department of Education, or that defending our freedoms and interests ought to weigh more heavily on a Commander in Chief than responsibilities principally residing elsewhere (in the case of education, at the state level). Or that DOD had within the space of a year completed a strategic review that undergirded current defense spending. Propitious, then, that Secretary Panetta comes in with significant budget expertise and also the experience of being a congressman. He will need both to develop and sell a defense program 

House Armed Services Chair Buck McKeon says he will oppose the deficit reduction deal because of its cuts to defense. He will likely be in the minority, especially without the president making the case -- or even apparently understanding -- that defense is a different kind of obligation for the federal government than other spending. Given the magnitude of cuts likely to be imposed on DOD, Secretary Panetta ought to be engaged in developing several different force postures as the start of our national debate on how much to cut defense, and where we will be accepting risk when we do so.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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