Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Conley is a research assistant at the center.
For those of us who believe the U.S. government is spending more on defense than it needs to, President Obama's budget on Monday will bring what sounds like welcome news: The administration is expected to propose a $78 billion reduction in defense spending over the next five years.
Unfortunately, there's a lot more to the story.
First of all, the cuts might prove illusory. The federal government appropriates money one year at a time, and the vast majority of that $78 billion reduction would take place in 2014 and 2015, when there will be a new Secretary of Defense and possibly a new president.
In fact, Obama's expected 2012 request of $553 billion would be 5% higher than what the Defense Department plans to spend this year. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this figure is higher than at any time during the Bush years or during the Cold War.
And that's just the Defense Department part of the budget. There's another $30 billion that agencies outside the defense spend to support the Pentagon. The largest share come from the Department of Energy, which uses the money to operate and maintain the several thousands nuclear weapons in the Pentagon's arsenal.
Furthermore, the Defense Department request excludes at least another $100 billion that will most likely be spent next year on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yes, the government funds the wars separately from the main Pentagon budget.
This year, the Pentagon will spend about $150 billion on these two conflicts. The exact amount it spends in 2012 will depend on how many troops the Pentagon withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq this year.
Right now, we have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and 40,000 in Iraq, at a cost of about $1 million per person in Afghanistan and about half that amount in Iraq.
Adding it all up, total defense spending in 2012 will be in the neighborhood of $700 billion -- not just the $553 billion that Obama is likely to request for the Pentagon alone. Here's another way to look at it: That is more than half of the discretionary budget and about 20% of the entire federal budget.
Finally, the proposed Pentagon cuts would be a drop in the bucket compared to those identified by President Obama's fiscal commission. The commission recommended cutting the projected level of defense spending over the 2012 through 2015 period by $282 billion, or almost four times the amount the Pentagon leadership wants.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates called such proposed reductions catastrophic and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dubbed them massive and dangerous. However, they failed to note that in constant dollars such reductions would still leave the Pentagon budget in 2015 about $100 billion larger than the Bush years and about $50 billion more than the Reagan years.
If Congress opts to make the Pentagon a real partner in tackling the national debt, there are a number of sensible steps it can take to realize further savings from the Defense Department's 2012 and future budget requests. These include reducing or eliminating funding for a number of unnecessary weapons programs, such as V-22 Osprey, rolling back the post-Sept. 11 growth in the ground forces and reducing the number of American forces deployed abroad outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given the gravity of the economic situation facing the United States right now, these and other defense spending cuts cannot and should not be taken off the table.
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