It's time to move ahead on defense reductions

I have been saying for some time that we are in a defense drawdown. It has already begun. Including war costs, overall DOD budgets are down more than 10 percent in constant dollars from the FY 2010 peak.

While some will immediately say that is because we left Iraq and drew down in Afghanistan (which is true), the so-called "base defense budget," which is largely interchangeable with the war budget, has also come down. It was flat in FY 2011 (no gains for inflation), down about 1 percent in FY 2012, and seems very likely to go down even further this year, with negotiations over sequester between now and March 1 likely to arrive at an agreement that includes more defense reductions.

A drawdown is realistic. What is unrealistic is the Pentagon's current expectation and planning projection that defense budgets will keep up with inflation over the next ten years. While Secretary Panetta likes to claim (he did so just last week in Europe) that he has cut $487 billion from future defense budgets, he fails to say that these "cuts" actually brought projected budgets down to where DOD would still keep up with inflation, or, in other words, continue to grow in current dollars.

We will go deeper. We have always gone deeper after a war. And the defense community in Washington, D.C. is substantially more realistic than the Pentagon leadership in projecting deeper cuts. The latest sign comes from the National Journal, which polled its large and highly diverse group of "national security insiders" last week, asking them how deep they thought the defense budget could go over the next decade.

Eighty percent of this group, which ranges from left to right, thought the budget would go down at least another $100 billion over the next decade. Thirty-five percent expected cuts of $100-300 billion; 21 percent thought they would range from $300-500 billion, while 24 percent (including yours truly) thought they would be at least $500 billion.

Those would be real cuts, below inflation. And a surprisingly large unanimity of view exists that such cuts are inevitable. Moreover, they would not be "doomsday." A $500 billion reduction in currently projected defense budgets would be one of the most shallow drawdowns in our military history, below those after Korea, Vietnam, and the end of the Cold War. It would leave the Pentagon with $5.3 trillion in discretionary funding over the next decade (excluding any residual funding for overseas contingency operations, which could be as much as another $500 billion).

If sequester hits, these cuts will start right away. Even without sequester, such cuts are realistic and a form of budgetary discipline DOD has not had for more than a decade. It would be good for the Pentagon and likely Secretary of Defense Hagel to focus on this number as the budget negotiations move forward and as planning for the next Quadrennial Defense Review get under way.

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National Security

Who let the chiefs out?

The Joint Chiefs have spoken, and have told the Congress that "we are on the brink of creating a hollow force." Them's fightin' words. The mantra of "hollow force" goes back 40 years to the "bad old days" of the 1970s, when we transitioned from a conscript to a professional military. Turbulence there was, in those days. But the allegation, shall I say, rings "hollow" today. It smacks more of budget politics than truth.

It seems to be part of an orchestrated campaign, following the January 1 agreement, to stop sequester or at least draw a line in the sand for a Congress which seems increasingly benign about the consequences of the across-the-board cuts that might happen March 1, if there is no spending agreement.

But it is not truth. We are nowhere near a "hollow force" today. Au contraire, after more than 10 years of war, we have just about the most ready, sharpest point of the military spear we have seen since the military went professional in the 1970s. Returning forces will tell you; they are not tired, wrung out, depleted. They are ready, well-tuned, and probably better prepared for the conditions of the new warfare of this century than ever before.

And they are numerous, too. We've been out of Iraq for a year now and Afghanistan is coming down fast, even faster than expected. We increased the ground force by about 100,000 to deal with rotation in those countries; we are coming back down from that rotational buildup, but will retain sizable forces.

So the chiefs have offered absolutely no evidence that a readiness crisis is at hand, because it is not at hand. What they are really saying is "don't cut, please don't cut our budget." Budgetary politics as normal.

And there is a kind of budgetary sleight of hand going on here. They were careful in their letter to say that there might be a cut of more than 20 percent in operating budgets as a result of a sequester and extending the current continuing resolution through the whole year. But check the elusive, always important issue of the baseline from which they are measuring: that 20 percent is from the operating budget request the president sent up last February for this fiscal year.

But the president's budget requests sought an increase of nearly 10 percent over the previous year's funding level. So part of that 20 percent, nearly half, is just not getting what you asked for, but dealing with level funding. The services don't like that; no wonder they protest.

Methinks they doth protest too much. Add to that legerdemain the reality that we are about to reduce forces in Afghanistan at an accelerated pace. Overseas Contingency Operations, which funds Afghanistan, is two-thirds operating funds. And these funds are entirely fungible with the rest of the services' operating funds. In the last couple of years, Congress has found billions of unspent Afghan operations dollars to use for other purposes, due to underspending there. I have no doubt they will find the same this year. This will provide more flexibility for the operations cuts the chiefs are screaming about.

This is a management problem, not a readiness crisis. The last decade has given us the most over-ready military we have ever had. What the services are actually doing -- what Deputy Secretary Carter asked for last week -- is nothing more than due diligence and the first step toward sensible planning for a drawdown. This is hyperbole and budget politics, but it is not reality.

Service Chiefs Letter to Senate Armed Services Committee

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