Defense spending jumped to the center of Washington’s attention early this year when a deal between Congress and the Obama administration formally reduced the budget and threatened an additional $500 billion cut. Many Pentagon and congressional leaders oppose cuts of that size, but a new survey from the Program for Public Consultation, Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity suggests that Americans believe policymakers still are moving too tentatively.
Three-quarters of those surveyed would cut spending beyond the plan, and most would do so in ways compatible with the Pentagon’s new strategy.
Standing before the troops in Kabul in early May, President Obama promised the country that “this time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.”
As a result, the Pentagon proposed a 23 percent decrease to the war budget next year, from $115 billion to $89 billion. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed supported a lower figure. On average, participants preferred a $53 billion war budget, a sum less than half of its 2012 value and 40 percent below the 2013 request.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have been stressed the most by the past decade of war. Moving away from these missions allowed Obama and the Pentagon to propose restoring both services to approximately their smaller, prewar sizes.
Seventy-six percent of respondents to the survey also would trim the ground force, but participants on average favored a much deeper cut of 23 percent next year. This ground force reduction goes notably beyond the 17 percent they levied on the Air Force and the 13 percent they took from the Navy.
While it has requested to streamline traditional forces, the Pentagon has prioritized investment in special operations forces, such as the Navy SEALs featured last year in the Osama bin Laden strike.
Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed likewise were convinced that “special operations forces provide a less expensive, rapid and more precise way” to tackle many of today’s challenges. Yet even in this area, participants limited the budget to an average of $2 billion less than its 2012 value.
If precise special operations are the future, many think that a massive nuclear weapons enterprise should be a thing of the past. Obama committed to the long-term vision of a nuclear weapon-free world in his 2009 Prague speech, and the Pentagon’s new strategy determined that “it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.”
Sixty-eight percent of survey respondents supported cuts to this funding. In total, respondents favored spending an average of 27 percent less on nuclear weapons programs next year.
Together, these changes correspond to a national defense budget similar to but stricter than the Pentagon’s vision in its new strategy. Participants made these choices with an understanding of their implications. Each was asked to weigh arguments for and against the specific changes they considered, as well as to evaluate positions on the aggregate level of national defense spending. Bearing those perspectives in mind, they set base national defense spending at 82 percent of its 2012 total. Among Republicans, tackling our debt with defense cuts was nearly three times as popular as raising taxes.
The message to Washington is clear. Policymakers can best represent the American people by leading the way to greater savings. Unfortunately, defense officials from Secretary Leon Panetta to House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., are fighting to avoid any additional cuts.
Their leadership is badly needed. The $500 billion cutback scheduled for next January hinges on a formula called sequestration, which is both sudden and disconnected from strategy. A process in which decisions are made deliberately and implemented gradually would be far more responsible.
Panetta and McKeon are unlikely to see their opposition to more cuts sustained, given the public’s willingness to make tougher tradeoffs, and digging in means DoD is missing the opportunity to squeeze more savings from its current strategy.
Whenever they return to the negotiating table, Congress and the administration will find national defense strategy and spending still squarely on it. The good news is that respondents think the Pentagon is on the right path. But its work is far from done. The cuts are too tentative, and the clock is ticking to find the right way to bigger savings.
Matt Leatherman is an analyst for the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Project, Stimson Center, Washington.