Obama Weighing Options for Military Cuts

US Military SpendingOne thing is certain: in the climate of sequestration politics the Obama administration has an opening to argue for deep reductions in programs that Congress has resisted. The Pentagon faces $46 billion in required cuts and some $500 billion over the next decade.

Here are some of the most severe cuts being talked about:

  • Troop reductions.
  • Base closings
  • Reduction in deployed nuclear weapons and stockpiles.
  • Scaling procurement of next-generation aircraft, starting with the F-35 (the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history).
  • Restructuring of the military medical insurance program (costs exceed all expenditures on US diplomacy and foreign aid around the world).

Some senior officers are saying that the actual reductions could far surpass those mandated by sequestration. Their feeling is that this administration might end up with the final word on where to spend Defense dollars. President Obama’s stated priorities include building drones, developing offensive and defensive cyberweapons, and focusing on Special Operations forces.

Gordon Adams, a former senior budget official in the Clinton administration who is now at the Stimson Center (Defense issues) said, “Sequester is an ugly experience, but it could grow up to be a budget discipline swan. It could provide the planning discipline the services…have been missing since 2001.”

To add perspective, military spending is currently at an all-time high (in dollar terms). It’s budget in the last decade nearly doubled, to $711 billion, representing about 4.7% of the GDP (see chart). In Defense spending, the US currently outspends China (the next highest Defense spender) by roughly 6-to-1; the U.S. yearly Defense budget is greater than that of the combined next 13 countries.

Immediate budget benefits can be had by reducing the size of active-duty forces. Other options, like cutting new weapons systems and bases and reducing health care costs, will save down the road but show little in the short term.

President Obama is sitting on a proposal already agreed to by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that could trim America’s active nuclear arsenal by almost a third (and includes big reductions in stockpiled nuclear weapons). The administration wants to negotiate similar cuts with President Putin of Russia, which is unlikely according to senior military officials.

The embattled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the largest single line item in the Pentagon’s budget. The F-35 a new jet for the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines,. As much as $84 billion has already been spent, but the estimates of final production costs are pushing toward $400 billion.

The program was wildly mismanaged during the Bush administration. Lockheed-Martin is the manufacturer. It has struggled to make the huge changes demanded by each of the services. Meanwhile, the cost of each aircraft has risen to over $1 billion. Senator John McCain of Arizona has been one of a chorus of critics on the F-35 program. “The Joint Strike Fighter program has been both a scandal and a tragedy,” he said in December 2011.

With so many questions—and so many military programs—up in the air, Administration officials say that Ashton B. Carter, the deputy defense secretary, will convene a panel of experts to conduct thorough review of U.S military strategy with the plan to fit the new budget constraints.

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