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A Growing Consensus for Shrinking the Defense Budget?

Sequestration’s cuts should be part of larger drawdown, progressive panelists agree.

The “silver lining” of sequestration is that the defense budget is coming down as political parties and the public focus on the economy and debt, a panel of progressive defense specialists said on Tuesday.

Though Pentagon leaders have warned of catastrophe if their budget absorbs a 15 percent cut, few in the department have awoken to the new consensus that a military drawdown is inevitable, according to speakers at a forum titled “Time to Reset Defense” sponsored by the left-leaning Center for International Policy.

Their visions for the new era in American defense strategy ranged from further troop reductions to narrower overseas missions to abolishing the Marine Corps.

Gordon Adams, a former Office of Management and Budget defense analyst now teaching at American University, said those who argue for higher defense spending are not getting traction because “we’re immensely more secure than at any time in our history.” With the budget already dropping by 10 percent, and other 10 percent from automatic across-the-board cuts, Adams said, sequestration has functioned much like the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, allowing politicians of both parties to say, “It wasn’t me, it was the commission that made the cuts.”

He spoke of the present as a special opportunity to “rethink how we’re engaged in the world,” noting that both political parties are divided among themselves on the next steps. “I’m not saying do more with less, or do the same with less, but do less with less,” Adams said. He listed rising threat priorities -- including counterterrorism, cyberwarfare, nuclear proliferation and failed states -- and said they are not “major drivers of the size of our forces.”

Decrying the fact that the defense budget is 12 times the size of the civilian statecraft budget, Adams called for cutting another 200,000 troops (putting more in reserve) and hitting the Air Force and Army more than the Navy when executing the drawdown. Reforms should include getting a handle on runaway acquisition costs, reducing the “back office” work force of civilian and non-deployed military personnel, and addressing expensive pay and benefits, “the third rail” of defense budget politics.

Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, which is now part of the Center for International Policy, questioned a Navy advertisement using the slogan “A Global Force for Good.” While he’s all for doing good, the Navy should limit itself to protection and crisis response, he said. Much of the $3.8 trillion spent on national security in past 13 years was unnecessary, Conetta added, and the nation should call a “provisional end” to the war on terror now that Osama bin Laden is dead.

The United States and its allies enjoy a 4-1 advantage in defense spending over the enemies, he said, recommending a budget of $465 billion or less. The principal challenge in the future is adapting to globalization, which brings disorder, Conetta said. More pressing than the threat of war is the fact that the United States is “losing ground in economic competition, which fuels discord in this country.” By 2020, America will no longer be No. 1, he said.

“We live in a world where the old is dying but the new cannot yet be born,” Conetta said, likening today’s defense budget trajectory to society’s major shifts in the past two decades on the issues of welfare dependency and same-sex marriage. He said he looks forward to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s coming new defense review.

A more radical vision was outlined by Gregory Foster, professor of national security studies at the National Defense University. “More fundamental than weapon systems and force structure,” he said, “is that the national security community suffers from conceptual deficit disorder, and if you want to be a card-carrying member of that community, you have to buy into perceived truths of the establishment.”

Foster said the government has a “moral obligation to properly subordinate the military industrial complex to civilian control.” In the long term, the military should work not toward “war-fighting but peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian assistance and disaster response.” Foster said such a conversion is considered unfeasible in a culture that  pushes for more defense spending to “keep up with the Joneses and be a manly man.” Foster added that many of the uniformed and civilian mid-career students in his classes probably don’t heed his ideas because they “are striving” to fit the culture.

Foster asked the audience, “Do we need a Marine Corps? I’d say no. Do we need four Air Forces? No. If someone says we need tanks, let the Germans build tanks.”

In contrast to Foster’s theoretical points, Amy Belasco, a defense policy and budget specialist at the Congressional Research Service, pointed out that the “goal of the military is to worry and plan for the worst-case scenario, which means translating that into a budget.” She said it will be interesting to see whether sequestration’s cuts remain in place for fiscal 2013. “An 8 percent cut in one year is a real freeze, quite a turnaround,” she said.

Asked about perceptions that cutting defense emboldens U.S. enemies, Adams said, “Cutting the budget is not what makes us weak, it’s about how we manage the drawdown.” He quoted Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter saying that past drawdowns were done wrong. “But there’s no evidence for that,” Adams said, citing the 1990s drawdown after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “It was not always done well, but it didn’t hurt national security.”

Using the resulting force, he noted, “President George W. Bush was still able to take down Saddam Hussein like a speed bump.”