January 5, 2005 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Pentagon Cuts Should Be Based on Needs, Not Budgets

The Department of Defense plans to cut nearly $30 billion out of major programs over the next five years, according to a widely reported leaked memorandum.[1] Some programs will be eliminated, some reduced, and others restructured. Most of the reductions would come from major Navy and Air Force programs, such as ship production and tactical fighter procurement. The Army, however, will enjoy $25 billion in increases over the time period.


It is impossible to make any final judgments about the cuts at this time because the final budget, which will define the baseline from which the cuts are derived, is not yet available. That said, some of the reductions and restructuring do seem legitimate while others seem shortsighted and budget-driven rather then needs-based. In the final analysis, both Congress and the Administration should consider the following points before making any of the cuts permanent:

  • The U.S. can afford to defend itself. While war costs have exceeded expectations and growing deficits and federal spending are legitimate reasons for concern, none of these are valid reasons to cut national security spending. The United States spends approximately 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, which is well within historic norms. Indeed, that level is well below what the nation has spent on defense since the end of World War II. Given the facts that providing for the common defense is the primary constitutional responsibility of the federal government and that the nation is at war, now is not the time to force unneeded cuts in the Pentagon.
  • Present and future needs must remain balanced. Some of the cuts highlight one of the ongoing problems with long-term Pentagon planning. Time after time, both the Pentagon and Congress base future planning on recent and present circumstances. In cutting its forces by approximately one-third across the board, ceasing nearly all procurement of major assets, and slashing budgets when the Cold War wound down, the United States acted as if it were entering a period of low military activity. Yet in the years between the Cold War and the War on Terrorism, the United States engaged in two major conflicts and an endless series of smaller military interventions. In all these activities, firepower was largely administered from the air, and land forces, if needed at all, were light.

    So the Pentagon focused on making its land forces smaller and lighter while enhancing its ability to place large amounts of ordnance on targets precisely from the air. The result was an air-centric culture that focused its modernization efforts on tactical air capabilities. But this force was designed more for peace operations in the Balkans and interventions in Africa than it was for insurgency pacification in Iraq. And so now it seems that modernization efforts are focused on preparing significant ground forces to occupy territory while pacifying relatively sophisticated insurgent forces. In the meantime, the Pentagon will decrease its air and maritime capabilities.

    The problem with this approach is that the Pentagon is always a step behind. What happens if the next conflict is in the Pacific and requires significant naval and long-range air forces? The Pentagon needs to heed its own advice and develop a force that is flexible enough to respond to a myriad of threats and circumstances. Doing so requires robust funding across many capabilities, including land, air, and maritime forces.
  • There is a price to pay for permanent increases in manpower. The proposed annual shift in funds from the Air Force and the Navy to the Army is roughly equivalent to the cost of the additional manpower recently mandated by Congress. While the Army needed that increase in personnel to help it finish its mission in Iraq and to facilitate some of its structural modifications, adding troops costs real money and, as the cuts make clear, real programs. This is why when Congress mandated an end-strength increase, it should have earmarked additional funds to pay for it.

The proposed cuts are not final. The Pentagon has yet to present its budget request, which could change at any time, and Congress has the authority to change program funding as it deems necessary. Given the breadth and depth of the proposals outlined in the leaked memorandum, they should be viewed as an opening gambit, not the end result. Expect much debate over these matters in the coming weeks. The outcome will be healthy if Congress focuses on what is best for the nation and overcomes members' provincial interests and if the Pentagon can start to practice what it preaches by investing flexible, responsive, and diverse capabilities. If these things fall into place, the Pentagon will benefit from a good budget that is sensible and adequate.


Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] InsideDefense.com, "Pentagon Slashes $30 Billion From Major Navy, Air Force, Missile Defense Programs," January 2, 2005.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity