Over a long Senate career, Joe Lieberman has, like all elected officials, been right on some things and wrong on others. Speaking to the National Journal on December 6, he was wrong. It is worth saying this because he perpetuates a myth: the myth that the defense budget has been cut. What he said was, "Our defense budget has already taken, pursuant to the Budget Control Act last year, cuts of almost a half-trillion dollars -- which, in my opinion, already pose unacceptable risk [to] our national security."
Well, it's just not so. This is what I call the myth of the $487 billion cut. If you take the ten-year defense budget projection in Secretary Panetta's FY 2012 budget submission and compare it to the ten-year projection when he sent up the FY 2013 budget, the ten-year totals are certainly $487 billion apart. But if you look at the projected slope for the defense budget over those ten years, it basically keeps up with inflation.
What we have here is "lower expectations of growth," not a budget cut. It's kind of like your pay increase. If you were told you would get a cost of living pay adjustment and a merit increase in your pay, that would not only be good news, it would be real growth in your pay. If you were told you would only get a COLA, that's too bad, but it's not a pay cut. When you are told you will not keep up with inflation, that's a cut. And, worst of all, if you are told you will get less than you got last year in real dollars, that's a serious cut.
We are not in serious cut land in defense. Or, to be totally truthful, we have been in real cut land in the base defense budget (without the war costs) for the last two years, when Congress and the administration agreed that the FY 2011 would not get the COLA and in FY 2012 that it would get less than last year. But, frankly, the war budgets, even though they are falling, more than make up for those two cuts in the base budget.
So we are slowly getting to the reality I anticipate. The last three times we have done a defense drawdown, the budget has declined, in real dollars, by about 30 percent over ten years. We are only in the first two of those years and the Pentagon still projects that the curve will reverse course and it will keep up with inflation in the future.
Not likely; the sequester negotiations will probably drive the FY 2013 budget down below inflation or even below last year. And the agreement, when (not if) it comes, will probably be the first step toward projecting future defense budgets that decline in real dollars over ten years.
And that bit about "risks to our national security." Lieberman presents no details in the interview, but the last time we cut the defense budget 30 percent over ten years (actually 36 percent over 13 years, before it reversed course) in the 1990s, the forces left behind by the end of the decade (700,000 troops went away) used Saddam Hussein as a speed bump in 2003.
Our security is not endangered by a flat defense budget. Properly managed, it is not even endangered by real cuts. It's happened before; it will happen again, and the nation will remain safe.
Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.