As spending cuts go, the $8 billion that U.S. Senate appropriators trimmed from next year's defense spending bill wasn't much - a little more than 1 percent off the $678 billion requested by President Barack Obama.
But to many who monitor defense budgets closely, the fact that the defense budget was cut at all was more significant than the amount. The action by the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee shows that there is "a bipartisan push to cut defense," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
There was even pressure from some Republicans on the subcommittee to cut deeper, said Eaglen, a former Senate staffer. Senate Republicans had been considered "the last bastion of support" for defense budgets that have increased aggressively for a decade.
Senators followed a path blazed by their House counterparts in late July. House appropriators lopped $7.3 billion off the 2011 defense appropriations bill that Obama wanted.
Overall, Obama proposed spending $726 billion on defense in 2011. That includes more than $14 billion for military construction and $18 billion for nuclear weapons, which are funded in other spending bills.
And he'll likely get almost all of it. But support for ever-expanding defense budgets is evaporating fast. After a decade in which defense budgets have more than doubled - the budget was $333 billion in 2001 - "the consensus in Washington is that defense budgets will decline," Eaglen said.
It won't happen in 2011. Even if the cuts made by the appropriations subcommittees survive, defense spending in 2011 will be $11 billion to $12 billion higher than for 2010. And the subcommittee cuts aren't a done deal. They still must be approved by the full Appropriations Committees in each house, then the full House and the Senate, and then differences between the two houses must be worked out by a conference committee.
But attitudes about defense spending have clearly shifted.
What the appropriators did "was a shot across the bow" to warn the White House and the Pentagon "that defense budgets are no longer sacred," said Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgets at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.
"We're entering an era of deficit reduction," Adams said. "I'd put money on it that defense budgets will be cut."
It will take a number of years, but defense spending is likely to decline to about $500 billion annually, he said.
A real decline in defense spending could begin in 2012, he said. Eaglen said she expects a static budget in 2012 - a presidential election year - and cuts thereafter.
"Usually, procurement is the first thing to go, and that's already started," Adams said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has canceled or cut back some expensive weapons programs, including the F-22 stealth fighter, the C-17 cargo plane, the Army's Future Combat Systems, four Navy DDG-1000 destroyers, the Airborne Laser and others.
Gates has also ordered a 30 percent reduction in the use of contractors, elimination of the Joint Forces Command, a reduction of 50 flag-rank officers and a cut of 150 senior executive positions. His goal is to cut costs by $100 billion over the next five years and use the savings to buy new weapons.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has announced a new acquisition strategy that stresses the affordability as well as the performance of new weapons.
By emphasizing efficiency at the Pentagon, Gates is hoping to head off cuts imposed by Congress, Adams said. The defense secretary hopes to continue receiving big enough defense budgets to permit 1 percent "real growth" per year. That is 1 percent above inflation, which is now about 2 percent or 3 percent a year.
The Obama administration will probably draw up defense budgets that propose 1 percent real growth, Adams said. "But I expect Congress will cut them."
Why the sudden aversion to defense spending? The $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit this year and the $13 trillion U.S. debt.
Even the military concedes that the deficit and the debt are serious problems. In a speech to the Economy Club in Detroit in August, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the debt "the single biggest threat to our national security."
Annual interest on the debt is almost $400 billion and growing.
Confronted with those statistics, and prodded by a stagnant economy and high unemployment, political support for deficit and debt reduction has soared. Consequently, political support for continued free spending at the Pentagon is rapidly drying up.
To bring down the debt, the U.S. must cut spending or raise taxes, or a combination of the two. On the spending side, the Defense Department is where much of the money goes.
The military consumes about 20 percent of all U.S. government spending, and half of nonmandatory spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Pulling most U.S. troops out of Iraq and beginning a drawdown in Afghanistan next year will enable the Pentagon to cut tens of billions of dollars from the $158 billion now being spent on the wars.
But even eliminating the war costs would still leave the Pentagon with a $565 billion budget.
Adams said the Pentagon is likely to shrink the force, perhaps eliminating some or all of the 92,000 Army and Marine Corps troops added during the Iraq War. It will also likely stretch out programs, buying fewer and spending less each year on Joint Strike Fighters, attack submarines and everything from trucks and earthmovers to firearms.
Eaglen agreed that personnel cuts are likely - and, she said, the wrong way to save money. The Army and Marine Corps "are still too small" for the number of operations the U.S. undertakes, she said.
It may be possible to cut personnel costs by shifting some active-duty troops to the reserves temporarily, she said.
One thing that should be cut - but won't be - is personnel benefits, Eaglen said. Pay, medical, education and other benefits have been dramatically increased in recent years and are becoming unaffordable, she said.
But personnel benefits are a "third rail" issue in Congress - untouchable, she said.
Greg Kiley argued that all this talk of cutting defense budget cuts is off base. A senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Kiley said, "a drastic decline in defense budgets in the next five to 10 years is not necessarily on the horizon, nor easy to accomplish."
Although $700-plus billion is "an awfully large defense budget figure," he said, it won't be easy to cut it substantially.
Cutting 92,000 troops won't generate enough savings to reduce the budget to $500 billion, he said. And Congress is unlikely to approve such cuts with unemployment near 10 percent.
Big cuts in weapons aren't a good answer either, he said.
Cutting 10 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, for example, saves less than $3 billion a year. Eliminating funds for the F-35 alternate engine saves just $450 million. "Even cutting the F-35 entirely would not yield" the kind of savings it takes to retrench to a $500 billion annual defense budget, he said.
"Absent any new conflict, by 2015 the base defense budget by then looks to be in the $750 billion to $800 billion range." That includes more than $50 billion a year that will be needed to pay for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kiley said. "We are not leaving the Gulf entirely anytime soon."