One of the chief concerns in Washington currently is how deeply the Pentagon's military spending would be cut if the congressional super-committee charged with finding an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit spending cuts fails to reach that goal by December. A bipartisan cadre of elected and appointed officials has already begun to moan that additional cuts, beyond the $450 billion reduction in projected military spending levels already scheduled to occur over the decade, would be "catastrophic."
That is the term Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta used to describe his view of further cuts. "It'll truly devastate our national defense," he told a House committee Thursday.
The extra amount that worries him and others is roughly $600 billion. An additional cut of that level in projected higher spending over the next decade would be imposed under the across-the-board formula for cuts that Congress and the Obama administration devised as the backup plan if the super-committee deficit-reduction panel fails to meet the goal fixed under the agreement for an increase in the nation's debt ceiling.
Such fear seems unwarranted. A more likely prospect is that the deficit-reduction supercommittee might come close enough to its goal that Congress and the Pentagon could agree to a smaller figure for additional cuts. Regardless, the Pentagon budget is so huge, relative to both domestic spending and to global military spending, that additional cuts ought to be demanded.
United States' military spending in 2010, for example, amounted to roughly $700 billion, or about 4.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product, and took about a third of Washington's tax revenue. More to the point, America's military spending is greater than the world's next 19 highest military spenders combined. The next closest spender last year, China, spent barely one-seventh of what the United States spent. Its $114 billion budget is paltry compared to that of the U.S.
France, the next highest, spent $61.3 billion. Following in the top 10 were the United Kingdom ($57.4 billion), Russia ($52.6 billion), Japan ($51.4 billion), Germany ($46.8 billion), Saudi Arabia ($39 billion), Italy ($38.3 billion), and India ($36 billion).
You would have add all their spending to that of the next 10 highest-spending countries - Brazil, Australia, South Korea, Spain, Canada, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Taiwan and the Netherlands - in order to equal what the U.S. alone spends on the military. So what could be so catastrophic about reducing the projected level of increased spending over the next 10 years by another $600 billion.
Experts have long pointed to runaway defense spending in the United States as an issue that the Pentagon must address. Its budget soared over the past decade on reckless spending for two mismanaged wars and a slew of duplicated weapons systems.
A congressional study commission, for example, conservatively estimated waste of $30 billion to $60 billion in the $206 billion the Pentagon paid to private contractors for various services in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Needless spending on unnecessary different versions of major weapons for separate branches of the military runs into tens of billions of dollars. Other systems devised for the Cold War era reasonably could be eliminated, if members of Congress weren't so fixed on maintaining defense department spending in their districts.
Savings are also available in reasonable changes to military pay, benefits and retirement costs, which consume about a third of non-war spending and have become unsustainable. Members of the military, to be sure, deserve ample pay and benefits, but fair reforms for working-age military retirees - i.e., deferring retirement starting ages and benefits and charging health insurance co-pays and premiums at levels more near to civilian levels - would be reasonable, and would save tens of billions of dollars.
If the rest of Americans must sacrifice to get the nation's deficit spending down to a sustainable level, the military will have to contribute to that cause, as well. The nation does not need, and obviously can no longer afford, a military that so hugely outspends the rest of the world's combined military powers.