Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ plan to reduce the Pentagon budget over the next five years is appropriate, overdue and even brave. The politics and emotions will be intense.
For a federal budget awash in red ink, no government role is above review, and cutting. The Pentagon has avoided scrutiny for a decade, with soaring growth in the budget taxpayers nominally know about, and two expensive wars essentially running a tab out of sight.
The headlines after Gates’ announcement last week looked to shrinking numbers of Army and Marine Corps troops. Qualifiers abound about the eventual changes. For starters, the intent is to slow budget growth, so the 2012 budget is up, but less than expected.
The plan, pushed by the Obama White House, has been endorsed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and supported by the heads of the four service branches. They had already identified cuts in addition to savings targeted by the Defense Department. Money will be moved around to fill holes and maintain service priorities.
One of the trickier parts will come when these proposals hit Capitol Hill. One can imagine the flag-draped oratory to do the best by the men and women in uniform, regardless of assurances they absolutely will be provided for. Unspoken will be the clear message: “Don’t cut military spending in my district.”
The defense budget is a marvel of strategic planning. One might confidently predict there is not a single congressional district in America that does not have a stake in DOD purchasing, contracting and real estate.
Another dose of reality will be assessing military retiree medical expenses and fees.
Rethinking the budget ought to help the Pentagon define its mission for the 21st century. As two wars wind down, what is ahead?