A Race to the Bottom

By Tomas Valasek

For decades, European countries cut defence budgets with little worry. The United States kept enough troops on the continent to deter all potential enemies, almost irrespective of how small European militaries became. But the US contingent has been steadily shrinking, and the pace of this downsizing now seems certain to accelerate because of the economic crisis. The Europeans should be worried - yet they will probably respond by hastening their own defence cuts.

The July 31st agreement under which US Congress increased the ceiling for national debt cuts defence spending by $350 billion over the next ten years, White House calculations say. However, the deal also calls for a joint committee of six Democrats and six Republicans to find ways to decrease the deficit by another $1.5 trillion. The lion's share of those reductions is certain to come in the form of expenditure cuts (as opposed to tax increases). And these further cuts - even if spread across government departments - will include significant reductions in the Pentagon budget, beyond the $350 billion that it is already scheduled to lose. Military spending now consumes more than 20 per cent of the total federal budget (for comparison, in the UK the figure is 6 per cent). Assuming that the joint committee makes roughly proportional cuts among government departments, the Pentagon will lose another $250 billion; this would put total reductions in military spending at $600 billion over ten years.

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There is also the possibility that members of the committee will fail to agree, which would be even worse for the US military. Under the borrowing agreement, such a failure would lead to an automatic imposition of a $1.2 trillion cut in government spending, half of which would come straight from the Pentagon's budget (for accounting reasons, the final amount would be slightly less than half: $534 billion). Including the $350 billion in cuts agreed last week, total loss to US defence spending over the next ten years could thus reach nearly $900 billion. The Republicans have been traditionally supportive of defence spending so in theory they have strong reasons to work with the Democrats on averting such draconian cuts to the military. But Democrats want further deficit reduction to include tax increases, which the Republicans oppose. And the ‘new' Republican party is considerably less pro-defence than it used to be in the days of John McCain and Bob Dole; its top priority now is deficit reduction. If Democrats insist on tax raises, there is a chance that Republican members of the joint committee would rather choose an impasse, even if this led to deep defence cuts.

Whether the final amount is $600 billion or close to $900 billion, reductions of such magnitudewill have considerable impact on contractors and allies around the globe. One mitigating factor is that the cuts will be calculated on the basis of future projected spending (which was scheduled to rise) rather than current spending. Also, after 13 straight years of increases, the defence budget has reached a monumental $530 billion in fiscal year 2011 (not including another $160 billion allocated specifically for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). However, much of this amount is committed to manpower and benefits. Military healthcare alone consumes around $50 billion a year, and Congress is unlikely to agree to reduce it before the 2012 elections. The brunt of the newly ordered cuts will therefore fall on relatively few budget categories. Research is likely to suffer (because it can be cut with little immediately visible impact) and so is procurement (because some new weapons have incurred controversial cost overruns).

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Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

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