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New CBO report: DOD can cut budget by $1 trillion without changing US strategy

The Congressional Budget Office’s study should start a debate not on whether to make cuts at the Pentagon, but by how much.

At a time when a majority of members of Congress are seeking to increase the Pentagon’s already massive budget, a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has demonstrated how spending on the Department of Defense can be scaled back substantially even before making major changes in U.S. global strategy.

The new report outlines three different options for cutting the Pentagon budget by $1 trillion over the next decade — a 14 percent reduction. Doing so would still leave the department with $6.3 trillion in taxpayer dollars over the next ten years, in inflation-adjusted, 2022 dollars. That’s no small sum at a time when conservatives in Congress are balking at the $3.5 trillion price tag for the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” plan of sorely needed domestic investments.

To achieve its proposed savings, the CBO relies on cutting the size of the armed forces by roughly 20 percent in each of its three options. Cutting troops has a savings “ripple effect” because it reduces not only salaries and benefits, but also the weapons and support systems needed to equip a larger force. 

Each option has a different emphasis, but the savings are the same in each case. 

The first option “preserves current post–Cold War strategy of deterring aggression through threat of immediate U.S. military response with the objectives of denying an adversary’s gains and recapturing lost territory.” Cuts would hit each military service equally, and some weapons programs would be slowed down, or, in the case of the new B-21 bomber, cancelled outright. 

The second option “adopts a Cold War–like strategy for large nuclear powers of making aggression very costly and recognizing that the size of conventional conflict would be limited by the threat of a nuclear response.” It relies more heavily on coalition warfare than current U.S. strategy and would mean that it would take the United States military longer to deploy in large numbers to a region of conflict.

Option three “de-emphasizes use of U.S. military force in regional conflicts in favor of preserving U.S. control of the global commons (sea, air, space, and the Arctic), ensuring open access to the commons for allies and unimpeded global commerce.” Boots-on-the-ground U.S. interventions would largely be avoided in favor of the use of long-range strike weapons, naval blockades, no-fly zones, and arming and training of allies.

A common feature of all these scenarios is the focus on military methods of solving security problems. To be fair, this was the report’s mandate — how to adjust the size and focus of the U.S. military under lower budgets. But looking more broadly at the question of what will make the world a safer place in an era of pandemics, climate change, and racial and economic injustice, reductions well beyond the $1 trillion figure embedded in CBO’s recommendations are both possible and advisable.

One area of potential savings that was outside the scope of CBO’s analysis is the three-decades-long plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines, along with new warheads to go with them, at a cost of up to $2 trillion. A prior CBO analysis estimated that pursuing this plan would cost $634 billion in the next decade alone. Canceling the proposed new intercontinental ballistic missile and slowing the other elements of the plan in line with substantial reductions in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would save well over $100 billion over the next decade.

As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has noted, ballistic missiles are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, greatly increasing the chances of a nuclear war sparked by a false alarm. Eliminating ICBMs would be an important first step towards reining in nuclear dangers and moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

Another area of savings not addressed in CBO’s analysis is the Pentagon’s use of private contractors. The department employs well over half a million contractors, many of whom do jobs that can be done more cheaply and effectively by government employees, if they need to be done at all. Reducing the use of contractors by 15 percent could save over $250 billion in the next decade, as noted in a report by the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force. Cracking down on price gouging by weapons contractors could save billions more.

The new CBO report marks a refreshing departure from the cries for more Pentagon spending emanating from Capitol Hill, and lays out practical steps for achieving real reductions in military outlays. It should mark the beginning of a debate over how much to reduce the Pentagon budget, not whether to do so.

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