FPI Bulletin: Obama’s Defense Budget Misses the Target

February 2, 2015

The debate over defense spending is now focused on two figures:  the $534 billion that President Obama has requested for the Defense Department in fiscal year (FY) 2016, and the $498 billion cap that the Pentagon faces under a law known as the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).  A third number should be even more important, however: the $611 billion that former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates estimated the Defense Department will actually need in the coming fiscal year.

The reason that this last figure is so important is that a meaningful baseline for defense spending must reflect an assessment of the threats facing the United States and the capabilities needed in response to them.  Secretary Gates’ FY 2012 budget proposal was the last budget that reflected such an assessment, and it included the $611 billion estimate for defense spending in FY 2016.

Recognizing this fact, the bipartisan, congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel has recommended that the President and Congress should “return as soon as possible to at least the funding baseline proposed in the Gates’ FY 2012 defense budget.”  The Panel concluded that the Gates budget represents “the minimum required to reverse course and set the military on a more stable footing.”

The key question in the defense debate therefore should not be how much more funding the President has proposed compared to the “meat ax” contained in the Budget Control Act, but how little funding the President has requested compared to Secretary Gates’ recommendation before the BCA was signed into law – a $76 billion shortfall.

Broken down across the services, the magnitude of the shortfalls contained in the President’s budget request is stunning:

  • Compared to Secretary Gates’ estimate, the President’s proposal would cut $18.1 billion in personnel funding next year.  The Army has been particularly hard hit, and is on course to shed almost 100,000 soldiers since Secretary Gates submitted his last budget.  The Marine Corps will have fallen 10 percent since the BCA came into effect.
  • Modernization budgets will suffer an even larger cut under Mr. Obama’s proposal, falling $29.2 billion short of Secretary Gates’ estimate.  This at a time that the Army has halted almost all of its modernization efforts, the Navy’s has cancelled or postponed seven new ships over the past four years, and the Air Force is flying 12 fleets of aircraft that would qualify for antique license plates in Virginia.
  • Mr. Obama’s proposal would shortchange operations and maintenance funding by $6.6 billion compared to the Gates estimate.  This funding is essential to maintain the readiness of our troops, especially after the services survived a first round of sequestration by canceling billions of dollars in maintenance and training events.

As the chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps all testified last week, the deep defense cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act are a strategic disaster that are putting the lives of Americans at risk.

The debate over the FY 2016 defense budget presents an opportunity to right this wrong, but it is clear that a $76 billion cut from the last coherent assessment of the Defense Department’s funding needs would miss the target.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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