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A Fighting Chance For Obama's Proposed Military Cuts?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. President Obama delivered a nearly $4 trillion budget plan to Congress yesterday for the 2015 fiscal year. Today, we want to focus on what is expected to be one of the most significant debates this budget season over the size and scope of the military. The president and the Pentagon want to cut army troop levels to their lowest level since World War II. They want to retire older weapons, cut personnel costs and close excess bases. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed the spending plans last week, saying Americans need to be more realistic about the military's capabilities.


SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: After Iraq and Afghanistan, we are no longer sizing the military to conduct long and large stability operations.

MARTIN: We wanted to take a step back and get a sense of what the debate is going to be about as it proceeds and what makes physical and strategic sense. So be called Todd Harrison. He's the senior fellow for Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. That's a nonprofit public policy institute and he's with us in Washington, D.C. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

TODD HARRISON: Thanks, good to be here.

MARTIN: So, first of all, is there an overall philosophical difference or perspective that's coming to the fore now?

HARRISON: There is. I think that it's a debate going on right now about what do we want our military to be able to do in the future? And what kind of strategy we're pursuing and how does our military fit into our overall foreign-policy as a country? And from that flow a lot of natural questions like what size military do we need in the future and what types of capabilities do we need in that military?

MARTIN: Do these philosophical differences fall along partisan lines? I mean, 'cause, you know, sometimes they do. I mean, people see certain groups as their natural constituency, they advocate for those groups that tends sometimes - you know, that falls along party lines. Is the defense debate like that?

HARRISON: It's really not, and that's kind of a shift right now. Since, you know, the Tea Party groups have, you know, gained more power in the Republican caucus, we've seen a real split in both parties. And so now you've got more deficit hawks in the Republican Party aligning themselves on defense issues with more liberals - liberal wing of the Democratic Party - and calling for a much smaller Department of Defense. And then you've got kind of the traditional conservatives and the moderate Democrats lining up saying, hey, maybe we shouldn't cut defense so much. And it just so happens, a lot of those folks have large military installations and large populations of military retirees in their districts.

MARTIN: To be clear, is spending being cut as the administration envisions the future or do they envision spending just being reconfigured in a way that happens to shrink the army but builds spending somewhere else?

HARRISON: Yeah. And so in Washington, what we call a cut is not what most people would call a cut. What it is - it's a reduction in growth in defense spending. So they had been planning to grow at one level and now they're going to grow at a much lower level. And so that's the cut that we're talking about here.

And we're talking over a 10-year period, this would happen gradually. So, you know, this budget that just came out yesterday proposes basically a half a trillion dollars in defense spending. That is virtually identical to the level of defense spending that we're at right now. So it's no change, but in defense terms they think of that as a cut.

MARTIN: You know, this issue emerged during the 2012, you know, presidential debate where the then Republican candidate Mitt Romney criticized President Obama for some of the cuts or cut in growth that he had already envisioned or talked about. And this is how the president responded.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed.

MARTIN: What about that? I mean...


MARTIN: Does the president kind of - does the president's proposal just fundamentally envision a different world with different needs or are we talking really about size and spending and so on?

HARRISON: You know, I think that actually highlighted the fundamental debate going on within the Department of Defense right now - is what capabilities do we need in the future. You know, the great horses and bayonets quote, it actually is enlightening because what do we need in the future? Do we need a lot of surface ships in the Navy? Do we need a large quantity of surface ships? Or do we need more subs, more undersea ships?

You know, in the Army - do we need an Army that's sized to do operations like Iraq and Afghanistan again? Or are we going to say, you know what, we're going to try not to get involved in things like that, at least for the foreseeable future. And maybe we change the capabilities and our Army to focus on different types of threats. So that is the fundamental debate going on within DOD right now and they talk about it as a debate between capacity - the size of the force - and capabilities - that is the technology you have in your force.

MARTIN: You know, but noting that - I mean, what's the center of gravity of the opposition? I mean, is it then generally that people are attached to a certain way of doing things and - because they have - they perceive these as part of their domestic constituency because I have to note that the Department of Defense has asked for base closures over the years in the same way that, for example, the - I mean, it's not strictly an analogy - but say, for example, the Postal Service - right - the postmaster general has said, maybe we should consider doing - not doing Saturday delivery. But people get upset about that because they're used to having a certain kind of service from their government, and any change to that is upsetting to them, even if he says, perhaps you could deliver the same service through technology or something else. So what's the center of gravity of the opposition?

HARRISON: Yeah. I mean, a lot of is just trying to preserve the status quo because, you know, we've got bases, facilities all over the country, and those create jobs in people's districts - real jobs. And the fact is the DOD has about 20 percent more capacity in bases than it actually needs. That's waste that's built into the defense budget every year. But that waste creates jobs. Some people's jobs, like it or not, they depend on that waste. And so when you do things like close bases or you retire old weapons that DOD no longer needs, it ultimately is going to cost someone their job somewhere. And it may create a new job. It may allow you to spend that money elsewhere that creates a new job somewhere else. And that person hasn't yet been hired, and they aren't a constituent of anyone yet.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the Obama administration's proposed cuts to the military. Our guest is Todd Harrison, senior fellow of defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. All right. Well, let's talk about pay. The president's budget proposes a 1 percent pay increase. But the goal, as I understand it, is still to get payroll costs down, right?

HARRISON: Right. That's been one of the things that's been eating the Department of Defense budget from within over the past decade or more is a rising cost of compensation for military personnel. Now over the 2000s, Congress instituted a lot of new benefits. They increased pay more than DOD requested. They did a lot of things. And what happened was the cost per person in the military grew by about 60 percent when you adjust for inflation. Now as that was happening, the overall defense budget was growing. So personnel cost didn't eat up a larger percentage of the overall budget 'cause the budget grew. But the size of the force actually didn't grow during this buildup. We have basically the same sized force today as we did on 9/11. So the difference is people are costing us a lot more, and they're trying to get that under control.

MARTIN: Now, you know, retired Air Force Colonel Mike Hayden is with the Military Officers Association of America. He recently spoke with my colleague, the Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman. You know, his argument and the argument of others is that this isn't just a cost issue. This is a readiness issue, that when you cut pay and benefits to a certain level, that you can't attract or maintain the kind of force that you will need in the event of a 9/11, for example. I just want to play a short clip from their conversation.


MIKE HAYDEN: We did this after Desert Storm won and starting to bring down the force, as well as with the Cold War era ending. We started drawing down the force, and we started capping pay and cutting back on benefits. And we then get ourselves into a position where we can't find people to recruit or retain because the pay and benefit get cut so far.

MARTIN: What does the history show on this question?

HARRISON: Well, I don't think the facts support when he was saying. I was recruited into the military in the '90s after that drawdown, and the benefits were great. That's what attracted me is that it paid for my college. And so, you know, I think that it's a little bit of a revisionist history. But the other thing, too, is, you know, attracting the best and the brightest to the military is not just about pay and benefits. People serve for other reasons as well. They serve because they want to serve their country, and also, people join the military for the wonderful training that they get and the ability to use most modern technology. So when we talk about keeping faith with the troops, it's not just about pay and benefits. It's also about keeping faith with them so that they'll be trained and prepared and equipped to go out and fight our wars if they're called upon.

MARTIN: What about keeping faith with those who have already completed their service, and particularly people who have been injured? I understand - or who are about to retire or who are elderly? This whole question of the benefits for retired military, for health care for disabled veterans is one that kind of is already being discussed in kind of a very emotional way. Can you help us understand what this debate is about?

HARRISON: Yeah, and so this is where it's important. It gets confused a lot in the press. When we're talking about military health care and military pay and benefits, that's what comes out of DOD's budget. It funds benefits for the active-duty people in the military and people who served 20 years - a full career - and retire. Now veterans are different. When we're talking about veterans' benefits and services, like someone is, you know, injured in the line of duty, disabled.

They get veterans' benefits. That's not in the defense budget. That's part of the Veterans Affairs budget. That's funded separately. No one is talking about cutting that. In fact, it's increasing dramatically. When President Obama took office, the veterans budget was about 100 billion a year. It has grown to over 150 billion a year right now, and it's going to continue to grow in 2015 and beyond. So those benefits are protected. They're separate. All we're talking about here are things like Tricare that gives, you know, health care to active-duty service members, their families, retirees, which is a small subset of veterans and their families. And we're only talking about modest changes here.

MARTIN: OK, so we only have about a minute left. Tell us what we should be looking forward to as this debate unfolds. I'm wondering if there's any kind of center of gravity of agreement between the people who generally disagree on these issues, or what do you think is kind of the next marker we should be looking for as this debate unfolds?

HARRISON: I don't think much is going to happen on this debate during this session of Congress. I think they're going to talk a lot about it. I think Congress will largely punt on a lot of these changes. They may let the 1 percent pay raise go in. That's less than the 1.8 that service members would have had otherwise. But the next big market to look for is actually this commission Congress created two years ago to study this very issue, this military compensation modernization reform commission. They're going to report out their results in February of 2015, and that, I think, is where this debate will actually get moving.

MARTIN: Todd Harrison is a senior fellow of defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Todd Harrison, thanks so much for joining us.

HARRISON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.