Defending Defense: Ten Questions on the Future of U.S. Defense Spending Priorities for Secretary of Defense Nominee Leon Panetta

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Defending Defense: Ten Questions on the Future of U.S. Defense Spending Priorities for Secretary of Defense Nominee Leon Panetta

June 7, 2011 5 min read

Authors: James Roberts and Ray Walser

A joint project of
American Enterprise Institute, Foreign Policy Initiative, and
The Heritage Foundation


  • The Obama administration has requested that Congress provide $553 billion for the Defense Department’s base budget in FY 2012—$13 billion less than what the administration had projected requesting a year earlier.

  • President Obama’s deficit reduction plan calls for $400 billion in cuts to national security spending over the next 12 years. This is in addition to the approximately $400 billion already cut by the administration during the previous two years.

  • The baseline defense budget is now 3.5% of America's GDP, a figure well below the post-World War II average. If the Obama administration succeeds in its plans to cut defense further, that percentage will drop to 3% or lower--the lowest total in the entire post-World War II era.

Members of Congress and the American taxpayer may wish for answers to the following questions from Mr. Panetta:

Ten Questions

(1) Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on May 24, 2011: “I have long believed, and I still do, that the defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes.”

  • Do you agree with Secretary Gates’ statement? If so, what is the logic for cutting defense spending even further than it already has been so far during wartime? Should defense be given higher priority than other areas of federal spending?

(2) The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Independent Panel—chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley—concluded that “the Department of Defense now faces the urgent need to recapitalize large parts of the force. Although this is a long-standing problem, we believe the Department needs to come to grips with this requirement…. Meeting the crucial requirements of modernization will require a substantial and immediate additional investment that is sustained through the long term.”

  • Do you agree with the panel that there is an urgent problem? If not, why not? If so, how is the modernization challenge to be addressed with a defense budget that is flat or declining?

(3) Secretary Gates stated in a speech on May 24, 2011, that “a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go to fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”

  • Presuming that President Obama’s additional proposed cuts will include a reduction in the size of America’s armed forces, what “places” would you recommend that we forgo going to and what “things” would you recommend that the American military stop doing?

(4) Secretary Gates has stated that ill-conceived cuts to defense spending could increase America’s vulnerability in a “complex and unpredictable security environment” and, in the same spirit, that “the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power—the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military.”

  • Do you agree with Secretary Gates’ assessment of the dangers incurred by cuts in military spending and the role of hard power in keeping the peace? And if so, how are those views to be squared with President Obama’s proposal to cut America’s base defense budget (as a percentage of America's GDP) to its lowest point in more than 60 years?

(5) The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, recommended on June 2, 2011, that when implementing President Obama’s plan to cut $400 billion from security spending, savings should be identified in military pay and benefits before making cuts to “force structure” (i.e. weapons programs, equipment and the number of personnel in uniform).

  • Do you agree with Admiral Mullen’s recommendations?

(6) As a chief architect of the defense budget drawdown in the 1990s, you oversaw major reductions in military procurement spending (including a 13.4% decline in FY 1994):

  • Secretary Gates and the QDR Independent Panel have agreed that the U.S. went on a “procurement holiday” in the 1990s. How have procurement decisions in the 1990s affected our operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? Given the experience of recent years -- and knowing what you know now – would you have supported the same cuts?

(7) Rising Threats: China and Iran

China has tripled its military’s budget over the past 15 years, putting at risk our military’s long-standing ability to operate decisively and safely in Northeast Asia.

  • How should the continuing quantitative and qualitative growth of Chinese military capabilities inform U.S. defense investments?

The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran is working on a likely nuclear weapons program. Iran’s missile program also demonstrates increasing proficiency and range.

  • Should Iran’s nuclear program inform U.S. missile defense research and development?

  • Is Iran’s nuclear program relevant to U.S. force structure and strategic posture in the region?

(8) U.S. Air Force

Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz has stated that the present fleet of 187 F-22 fighters creates a high risk for the U.S. military in meeting its operational demands.

  • As China develops and tests increasingly-capable stealth aircraft, like the J-20, and as Russia develops and sells resilient air defense systems, would you support reviewing the previous decision to end procurement of the F-22 Raptor at 187?

  • Do you favor creating an export variant of the F-22 for sale to allied air forces?

(9) U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy has the fewest number of ships since America’s entrance into World War I. Yet the Navy is being tasked with arguably more responsibilities than ever before. Our fleet is undoubtedly the finest ever put to the seas, but quantity has a quality all of its own. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen has said, “You are what you buy.”

  • What steps would you take to bridge the gap between our 285-ship Navy today and 313-ship requirement that the CNO has called a “floor”?

  • Congress has mandated that the Navy have no less than 12 aircraft carriers. Although the Navy currently has 11 carriers, the U.S.S. Enterprise will be decommissioned in 2013, and the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford will not be commissioned until 2015. Do you support a 12-carrier Navy today?

(10) U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps

Current budget plans—even prior to the latest announced defense cuts—were premised upon a complete withdrawal from Iraq and a dramatic drawdown in Afghanistan by 2014. They did not anticipate the prospect of a continued, residual presence in Iraq nor the possibility of a requirement for maintaining a sizeable force in Afghanistan. And, the plans were made before the events of the “Arab Spring,” including the conflict in Libya. The current budget plans, and current realities, make it all but impossible to achieve adequate “dwell times” (or rest at home for reset, training and time off) between rotations for combat and support units, and will necessitate continued heavy deployments of the National Guard and Reserves.

  • Do you support Secretary Gates’ proposals to reduce the end-strength of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps?

The Defending Defense Project is an effort of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative to promote a sound understanding of the U.S. defense budget and the resource requirements necessary to sustain America’s preeminent military position in a dangerous world. To learn more about the effort, contact the Heritage Foundation's Mackenzie Eaglen at, FPI's Robert Zarate at, or AEI's Richard Cleary at


James Roberts
James Roberts

Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth

Ray Walser
Ray Walser

Former Senior Policy Analyst