Washington • At a time when $46 billion in mandatory budget cuts is causing anxiety at the Pentagon, administration officials see one potential benefit: There may be an opening to argue for deep reductions in programs long in President Barack Obama’s sights, and long resisted by Congress.
On the list are not only base closings but also an additional reduction in deployed nuclear weapons and stockpiles and a restructuring of the military medical insurance program that costs more than America spends on all of its diplomacy and foreign aid around the world. Also being considered is yet another scaling back in next-generation warplanes, starting with the F-35, the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history.
None of those programs would go away. But inside the Pentagon, even some senior officers are saying that the reductions, if done smartly, could easily exceed those mandated by sequestration, as the cuts are called, and leave room for the areas where the administration believes more money will be required.
These include building drones, developing offensive and defensive cyberweapons and focusing on Special Operations forces.
Publicly, at least, Obama has not backed any of those cuts, even though he has deplored the “dumb” approach of simply cutting every program in the military equally.
Obama will visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday in another attempt to persuade lawmakers to reach a long-term deficit-reduction deal and replace the indiscriminate cuts with more targeted ones.
Still, Pentagon officials are starting to examine targeted ways to cut their budget.
“What we’ve learned in the past year is that the politics of dumb cuts is easy, because no one has to think through the implications of slicing everything by 8 percent,” said one senior defense official who has been deeply involved in the planning process. “The politics of cutting individual programs is as hard as it’s always been.”
When Obama took office four years ago, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars raging, deep cuts in the defense budget seemed unthinkable. He forced the Pentagon to cut nearly $50 billion a year, which was regarded by many as huge.
But today, deficit hawks outnumber defense hawks on Capitol Hill, and the possibility of $100 billion or more in additional annual cuts does not seem outrageous — if only agreement were possible on which programs should shrink fastest.
Last week, a group of five former deputy defense secretaries — essentially the Pentagon’s chief operating officers — called for a “bottom up” review that reassesses the need for each major program and weapons system, saying this was an opportunity to accomplish cuts that have long been delayed, after a decade in which the U.S. national security budget has nearly doubled.
In their more candid moments — almost always when speaking with a guarantee of anonymity — the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders acknowledge that the painful sequestration process may ultimately prove beneficial if it forces the Defense Department and Congress to reconsider the cost of cold-war-era systems that are still in inventory despite the many changes made to the military in the last 10 years.
“Sequester is an ugly experience, but it could grow up to be a budget discipline swan,” said Gordon Adams, a former senior budget official in the Clinton administration who is now at the Stimson Center, which studies defense issues.
The central challenge facing the Pentagon and the White House, Adams and several current senior officials said, is this: All the big, immediate budget benefits come from reducing the size of active-duty forces. By contrast, cutting new weapons systems and bases and reducing health care costs can save large amounts 5 to 10 years out, but it does little in the short term.
Obama took a step in that direction in 2011, when he rejected a Pentagon request for a permanent standing force of 100,000 or so troops for future “contingency operations” like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That’s not the way we are going to go,” he told his staff after the request was received.
The message quickly got back to the Pentagon that Obama had no interest in repeating the kind of lengthy interventions that have consumed more than $3 trillion since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But the Pentagon’s subsequent agreement to cut $500 billion in planned spending over a decade turns out to have been just a start, and military officials are now abandoning the phrase that they will have to “do more with less” and starting to assess what it would mean to just do less.
Toward that end, officials say that Ashton B. Carter, the deputy defense secretary, plans to convene a panel of experts to conduct a crash review of the current national military strategy with an eye to reshaping it to fit the new budget constraints.
Carter, whom the White House asked to remain under the new defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, has already cut the budget for information technology, to force the Pentagon to find cheaper ways to provide it, officials say.
But the next set of cuts will be much harder, because they involve huge constituencies — in congressional districts, inside the military services and among veterans’ groups.
“The problem is that the biggest, most-needed cuts are in programs that also have the broadest set of defenders,” said Maren Leed, the director of the defense policy studies group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former top aide to Gen. Ray Odierno, now the Army’s chief of staff.
The most obvious examples of those problems come in base closings and higher co-payments or premiums for the beneficiaries of Tricare, the military’s sprawling health care program, which costs upward of $51 billion a year.
To take the politics out of base closings, Congress in the past has established a commission to identify underused facilities, creating a list that it could either vote up or down on but could not amend.
But with many of the targeted bases now fairly obvious to members of Congress, they are reluctant even to establish a new commission. Similarly, Congress turned back a modest administration effort to revamp Tricare. “There’s not a single district without a lot of beneficiaries of the system,” Leed said.
Cuts in the nuclear arsenal face a different political imperative. Obama has been sitting for months on a proposal, agreed to by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that could trim the number of active nuclear weapons in America’s arsenal by nearly a third and make big cuts in the stockpile of backup weapons. But he has not signed off on it.
Rather than act unilaterally, the administration is hoping it can negotiate similar cuts with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — and do it without a treaty that would surely set off another battle with defense hawks in the Senate. But that prospect is doubtful, senior officials say.
Even if Obama wins his strategic argument that the arsenal is far too large for America’s future defense needs, it is not clear how big the savings would be. The easiest weapons to cut — those based in silos in the middle of the country — are also the cheapest to keep in the field.
The most expensive nuclear weapons to operate are carried aboard submarines; they are also the most invulnerable to attack, and thus Pentagon and White House strategists want to preserve them the longest.
Moreover, operating a production base for nuclear weapons, the Defense Department’s insurance policy in case the country ever needed to produce more, is very costly — though the administration is looking for ways to cut an $80 billion commitment to remake America’s nuclear laboratories.
The biggest target of all is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new jet for the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines, and the largest single line item in the Pentagon’s budget. Between $55 billion and $84 billion has already been spent, but the estimates of final production costs run close to $400 billion.
The Marine Corps says it has no choice but to go forward with its version of the plane, because its current aircraft are obsolete, and the Air Force wants to replace aging F-16s with the new, stealthy plane.
But the program was wildly mismanaged during the Bush administration — “The Joint Strike Fighter program has been both a scandal and a tragedy,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in December 2011 — and now that the number of planes scheduled for production has already been slashed, the per-plane cost has risen to well over $1 billion.
The handling of the production by Lockheed Martin, and the huge changes demanded by each of the services, has made the plane an easy target for critics.
But Lockheed has spread production over nearly every state in the union, in order to keep congressional support high: As soon as the discussion veers toward strategic needs, Lockheed begins to stress the jobs at risk if the program were cut or canceled.