Breaking Down the U.S. Defense Budget

Commentary | February 15, 2012

One of the major stories coming out of the Obama administration’s initial 2013 budget is the Pentagon’s proposal for major defense cuts. The initial announcement of a new defense strategy  that incorporates these reductions has already triggered heated debate (read EWI’s interview with former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley on the strategy here). But the specifics have only just been revealed this week. Here are three elements of defense spending to keep an eye on:

Drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan

The new Pentagon strategy maintains that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” The long-held emphasis on a two-war capacity comes to an end as U.S. combat troops are no longer fighting in Iraq (now allocated $2.9 billion for “transition activities”) and face a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, that 2014 withdrawal date has some caveats: on the one hand, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta proposed a cessation of combat operations in late 2013, but a strategic pact is currently being negotiated with the Afghan government to allow for a U.S. presence lasting beyond 2014. Operations in Afghanistan are budgeted at $85.6 billion for 2013 with a continuing presence of 68,000 U.S. troops. 

This massive cessation of combat operations is also counted as a contribution toward deficit reduction in the 2013 budget and is said to bring $1 trillion in savings. 

A shift in nuclear weapons strategy

The budget submitted to Congress signals a small but clear shift away from the nuclear “triad” strategy of the past 50 years. That triad, which relies on some combination of nuclear-capable bombers, submarines, and land-based installations to respond in the event of a nuclear exchange, is facing a proposed delay in production of nuclear weapon-equipped submarines. The delay is expected to save $4.3 billion through 2018.

The Associated Press reports that the Obama administration is also set to announce a drop of as much as 80 percent in the number of deployed nuclear warheads, offering proposals that would leave a range of 300–1,000 for immediate combat use. The current number of about 1,800 was already expected to drop to 1,550 under New START. These numbers are, of course, small change in comparison to the all-time peak of 31,225 total warheads  in 1967.

Click here to read EWI’s report from the Nuclear Discussion Forum, hosted in cooperation with the Kazakh mission to the United Nations.

Further cuts due to congressional inaction

Should congress fail to cut $1.2 trillion in government spending over the next 10 years, the Pentagon will face $487 billion in required cuts. Interestingly, the Pentagon is making no plans for the possibility that these sequestration cuts occur. “We are not planning,” said Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale, “And I know nobody believes this, but it’s true. I think I’d know it if it were.” The Pentagon appears to assume that, in an election year, Congress will avoid gutting the military at all costs. They may also wish to avoid helping deficit hawks in their search for expendable programs.

Since the end of World War II, the tide of defense spending has ebbed and flowed with regularity. Newly proposed changes in strategy may not be as radical as they sound: Projected spending levels are still higher than they were in 2002, and the budget share for defense is projected to be about the same in 2017 as it was before Sept. 11, 2011. But critics contend that, even in a period when two major overseas combat operations are winding down and the global economy remains fragile, the United States cannot afford to let its military preparedness slip; they argue that there are multiple new threats on the horizon. The debate on the future of defense spending is just beginning.