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The end of fear: Facing reality about defense spending

The federal budget is coming out next week. The defense part has been declared dead on arrival because it does not take sequestration into account, just works off of last year's request and projects about a 3 percent cut in the Pentagon's funding, year over year. It will go down farther.

But what is more interesting is the extent to which fear about defense is being replaced by realism about the sequester and declining defense budgets. Both may be more absorbable than the rhetoric has been suggesting.

The hyperbolic rhetoric about the sequester is starting to fade with the disappearing charm of Leon Panetta. There's a new boss in town, and the noises over the transom, at least, suggest that calm may be returning to Pentagon waters. Secretary Hagel is warning of "significant changes" and the need to confront them as budgets go down: "There's no way around it," he said last week. (Though I've got to worry if House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon is happy with Hagel -- he's the guy who wanted the Senate to defeat the nomination a month ago.)

Realism is picking up steam in other places, as well. The Navy was going to keep ships in port, stop ship overhauls, and watch readiness tank before that full-year funding bill was passed. Now, with $4 billion more in operational funds than they had last year, it seems the Navy's worry-warts have been appeased and the planners can step in.

The chief of naval operations is on a more realistic message. Sequester is budget discipline: "It's causing us to make choices and prioritize anywhere from our operations to our maintenance to our investment accounts," Adm. Greenert told Navy Times.

Out there in the country, it seems "sequesteria" is starting to fade, as well. Taking a good look at defense dollars in California, Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Puzzanghera found that when you get away from the Aerospace Industries Association and George Mason Professor Stephen Fuller's "doomsday" megaphones, the local impacts of changes in defense spending are not that significant.

He quotes a regular student of the state economy, who points out that even beleaguered California has a $2 trillion economy, and it might face a $9 billion reduction in defense dollars.

I've been eyeing the California defense economy for more than 30 years, and the trend has been clear. Contractors started moving out of Los Angeles and planting stakes in places like Arizona and New Mexico more than 20 years ago. The bad news was they were leaving, and jobs went with them. The good news turns out to be that now when the defense industry starts to sniffle, LA does not catch a cold. Economic diversity has set in, and growth in other sectors has, over the years, filled the job hole.

Sometimes defense is just made to look bigger than it really is. Oh yes, the defense budget is large. At over $600 billion, how could it not be; it's the highest over the past few years it has ever been in constant dollars. That will help cushion the effect of the drawdown on the military -- there's lots of room for consolidation and choice.

But, all the models aside, it is not going to sink the economy. It just plain isn't as much of the economy as it used to be: nearly 10 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in the 1950s, to an average of 3.8 percent at the height of the Bush war effort over the past decade. Defense has stayed large -- very large -- but the economy has grown exponentially.

Fear makes a good story; realism and planning are a better reality. Maybe we're coming back to earth.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

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