Editorial: Would defense cuts be dire?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Congress late last week that the proposed $52 billion in cuts to the military as a result of sequestation would wreak havoc on the armed services and weaken the nation’s military readiness. It was a plea that grabbed 15 minutes of airtime, then faded almost as fast. Why?
Not because it is untrue; $52 billion is a lot of money. It’s even a hefty chunk (roughly 7 percent) of what is defined as the Department of Defense budget, which amounted to more than $700 billion in 2012. That doesn’t count $2.9 billion in FBI counter-terrorism spending, $21.8 billion spent through the energy department on defense-related spending, $70 billion on veteran affairs, $46.9 billion on Homeland Security, $54 billion on veterans’ pensions and as much as $431.5 billion (depending on how you count it) on interest on debt incurred in past wars, or the supplemental war spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with a few smaller items of a few billion or so, the total comes to $1.03 trillion or $1.415 trillion (factoring in the higher interest on the debt) in total defense-related spending.
But these are big numbers, and the size of those numbers hide a lot of excess that could likely be trimmed.
Take, for example, the egregious example of waste in Afghanistan when military brass overruled commanders in the field and built a lavish $34 command headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan to use as a military base. Despite repeated protests from field generals that the building wasn’t needed, the project made it almost all the way to completion (including having the furniture installed) before the brass pulled the plug, weeks shy of adding more millions in sophisticated technology. The example of lavish waste made national news earlier this week with two possible outcomes as a result of U.S. forces pulling out of the area: give it to the Afghanistani military (with questions of their ability to maintain what is a very expensive building to keep up) or tear it down. Right now, the favored option by the military is to tear it down.
That’s just one example. According to a recent story in the Washington Post, the U.S. spent $60 billion to rebuild Iraq, but a report showed that more than $9 billion was wasted. Among the items abandoned when U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq: a 3,600-bed prison that cost $40 million, a $165 million children’s hospital that remains unused, and a $108 million wastewater treatment center that was never finished.
That adds up to a lot of wasted money, but as an item in the defense budget it’s not huge. It takes a 1,000 million to make one billion. You’d have to have 30 examples of waste at $34 million each to equal just $1 billion.
In short, cutting $52 billion would hopefully reduce such examples of waste (it’s not a bad thing to ask the Pentagon to watch its pennies a bit more carefully), but it would also cut into the meat of the military’s programs.
But that’s probably manageable as well.
Again, let’s look at the numbers. The U.S. defense budget is 6 to 7 times that of China’s defense budget (the second highest in the world), and the U.S. spends more than the next 20 highest-spending countries on their defense budgets (including Russia) — and the rest are so small in comparison they hardly count. Of the world’s spending on arms, the U.S. claims a shocking 40 percent of the total.
As a percentage of federal budget expenditures, in 2010 defense spending consumed 19 percent of the total, and 28 percent of estimated tax revenues. If you include all of those non-Defense Department expenses that are military and defense related (see above), military spending was 28-38 percent of budgeted expenditures and 42-57 percent of estimated tax revenues, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That this nation of peaceful intentions (at least that is how we view ourselves) spends a quarter-to-a-third of its budget on weapons and personnel to fight others should be a matter of national shame, not honor. Cutting back on that spending would help us realign our national priorities and goals — and still remain the dominant world military power.
The sequester is meant to be painful, and it certainly is to the poor whose benefits have been cut through various social programs, but if any department can survive a buzz cut, it’s the military. If it happens (and there is ample reason to believe it will not), the cuts would be substantial, but that’s far from “dire,” as Hagel described the possibility, and it certainly won’t undermine our ability as a nation to defend ourselves. There’d be plenty in the pot left for that.
Angelo S. Lynn

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