WASHINGTON — A majority of Americans favor cutting the US defense budget in five out of seven key areas, including nuclear weapons and missile defense, according to a new University of Maryland survey released March 9.

Nationally, a majority supports modest budget cuts to air power ($2 billion), ground forces ($4 billion), naval forces ($2 billion), nuclear weapons ($3 billion) and missile defense ($1 billion). No majority emerged for either cutting or increasing the budgets of the Marine Corps or Special Ops forces.

In total, a majority of respondents would cut the defense budget by $12 billion. When broken down by party, a majority of Republican respondents would leave the defense budget as is, while the majority of Democrats would cut it by $36 billion (including $11 billion cuts to both air power and ground forces), a larger cut than the $20 billion cut supported by a majority of Independents.

The survey, which was in the field from Dec. 20 to Feb. 1 and used 2015 figures, polled 7,126 voters across the US, with smaller samples taken in California, Florida, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. The margin of error for the larger national group was plus or minus 1.4 percent, while for the state subsets, it ranged from 3.9 percent to 5.0 percent. (You can take the survey here.)

The University of Maryland School of Public Policy's Program for Public Consultation conducted the survey, which is designed to present information, offer competing arguments about how to use resources, and then ask for policy recommendations, in an effort to put respondents in the shoes of a policymaker.

The survey also asked about funding levels for specific programs. After learning that it would save $6 billion this year and $97 billion through 2037, a nationwide majority (54 percent) and majorities in every state subset favored cancelling the F-35 joint strike fighter program in favor of upgrading current fighters.

In contrast, a nationwide majority (56 percent) favored continuing funding for the development of a new long range strike bomber, which will have the designation B-21, as Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James recently announced. Majorities in each state also supported proceeding with the B-21's development.

Told that cutting the number of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers from 11 to 10 or nine would save either $7 billion or $14 billion over the next decade, a majority of respondents favored shrinking the number by at least one. None of the statewide groups favored keeping all 11, although Virginia, home of the Newport News shipyard, had the largest group (45 percent) favoring the full complement of 11.

Similarly, when presented with a proposal to modernize the US nuclear submarine fleet, a majority (54 percent) opposed shrinking the number of new submarines from 12 to eight, which projected to save $16 billion over 10 years. Only in New York did a majority (54 percent) favor reducing the size of the nuclear fleet.

Presented with arguments pro and con either keeping 5,500 troops in Afghanistan or removing all US forces, 56 percent nationwide favored keeping forces deployed in Afghanistan.

"Given all the talk about increasing the defense budget, we were surprised to find how much Americans are not sold on increases, including a majority of Republicans nationwide," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation and president of Voice Of the People, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to give citizens greater influence in policy making, in a prepared statement.

The survey also presented the overall budget in various contexts, and gauged the relative levels of surprise among respondents. When the $573 billion of 2015 defense spending was compared with other discretionary spending, 56 percent nationally said it was more than they expected, versus 35 percent who answered it was just about what they expected, and 8 percent who said it was less.

When compared with entitlement programs, those percentages shifted to 32, 40 and 27 percent, respectively.

And when presented as a historic percentage of US gross domestic product, only 18 percent thought the defense budget was more than expected, 28 percent in line with expectations, and 54 percent lower than anticipated.

Email: aclevenger@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AndClev

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