The Pentagon’s New Blueprint

On January 5 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin E. Dempsey – joined by President Obama in a rare visit to the Pentagon – rolled out the military’s new strategic plan.

Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey’s briefing provided a modest amount of detail, but the basics are this: The U.S. military of the future will be smaller, but more agile. Post-Iraq and Afghanistan, the size of the Army and the Marine Corps will be reduced. The military will rely less on deploying troops to forward bases – there will be a draw down of U.S. forces in Europe, for example – and more on our ability to respond to threats where and when they arise. Finally, the military will continue to shift its focus towards the Pacific in response to China’s growing economic and military power.

But does “smaller” mean “less expensive?” It depends on who you ask. Secretary Panetta is scrambling to find an estimated $450 billion in cuts over the next decade, and says that anything further would be “disastrous.” Meanwhile, President Obama told the briefing that "over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this – it will still grow…”

In truth, the Pentagon may have to live with smaller budgets, if the automatic spending cuts enacted as part of last summer’s Budget Control Act come to fruition. But there are two points to keep in mind if this actually happens:

  • Additional military spending cuts on top of the current $450 billion reduction would represent roughly four percent of the military’s budget over the next decade, compared to the 43 percent growth the Pentagon has experienced over the last ten years, not including war funding.
  • These cuts will be smaller than those for non-defense discretionary programs – such as education, energy research and job training – which represent a smaller percentage of total discretionary spending than the military and have not enjoyed the rapid funding growth the Pentagon has experienced over the last ten years.