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Pentagon should do more cutting, less complaining about budget

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta walks across a tarmac before his departure from Baghdad, Iraq, in December.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

AS CONGRESS wrangles over how to rein in the federal debt, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been ringing the alarm bells about what will happen if the Pentagon is asked to cut more than the $450 billion that it has already agreed to shave off its planned budget over the next ten years. Deeper cuts, he has warned Congress, will turn the world’s greatest military into a “paper tiger.’’ He has used the word “catastrophic’’ to describe just how bad it will be.

While there is no doubt that it will be painful to cut costs while fighting a war in Afghanistan, US taxpayers should be wary of such hyperbole. In reality, even the most dire proposals for the Pentagon only roll back the Defense Department’s budget to what it was in 2007, when the military was fighting two wars. Panetta complains that the cuts would leave America with the smallest navy since 1915. But with weapons systems exponentially more powerful today, such comparisons distort the truth.


It remains to be seen whether the Pentagon will face an 8 percent cut in planned spending over 10 years — about $488 billion out of some $6 trillion — that Panetta has already planned for, or if it will be hit with an additional $500 billion in across-the-board cuts triggered by the failure of the congressional super committee to reach a deficit-reduction deal. Either way, the military will have to do more with less. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Tighter budgets should force the Pentagon to be smarter about which weapons systems it chooses to build. Over the past decade, the Pentagon has spent $32 billion on systems it ultimately cancelled, according to the Cambridge-based Project on Defense Alternatives.

Congress should also stop forcing the military to buy weapons it doesn’t want. For years, Congress kept on paying to develop an alternative engine for a new fighter aircraft - to the tune of $2.4 billion - even though the Pentagon begged it to stop. That kind of lobbyist-induced decision-making has helped push the Pentagon’s budget from $361 billion in 1998 to $697 billion last year.


Then there are the military’s health benefits for retirees and their families. While almost every other employer has adjusted their coverage to better-manage cost increases, the military hasn’t raised its hugely subsidized health premiums in almost seven years.

Such moves suggest a cosseted culture, only too well aware that its unique status puts it beyond normal constraints. But the more recent focus on tightening the Pentagon’s belt is already paying dividends. This week, Lockheed Martin announced that it will pay a larger share of the cost overruns on the radar-evading Joint Strike Fighter, the costliest arms purchase in history.

The best response to Panetta’s apocalyptic predictions comes from Panetta himself. In 1992, when Panetta was a House member on a budget-cutting committee, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney complained to him that cuts to the Pentagon’s budget “would end up destroying the finest military force this nation has ever fielded.’’

Panetta replied, “I think the most dangerous threat to our national security right now is debt, very heavy debt.’’ Panetta said he had no problem with America policing the world. “My problem is how the hell are we going to pay for it.’’ Now that the roles are reversed, today’s Congress should tell him the very same thing.