Unsexy Ways to Cut Defense Spending

Now is not the time to retrench, says Michèle Flournoy.
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Cutting jobs. Closing bases. Reducing healthcare benefits for servicemen. On a list of policies to reform defense spending, these would rank near the top in their potential to rub the American public the wrong way. But the hard truth, says former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, is that these measures could help the U.S. military get back on track toward being the most effective in the world in the long run. Referring to a recent open letter to Secretary Hagel from a coalition of think tank leaders across the partisan spectrum, Flournoy argued at the Aspen Ideas Fesitval on Wednesday that these kinds of cuts would help the military maintain maximal power and the ability to adapt in the future.

Here are the three reasons she gave:

The United States is at a strategic "inflection point." Coming out of two ground campaigns, military resources need to be realigned, she said. But that's not all — the security landscape abroad has fundamentally changed. "Particularly as you see a much more multi-polar world emerging, with the rise of countries like China and India, with continued turmoil and upheaval in the Middle East, with fundamental changes in our energy sector, which will change our interests in the Middle East, potentially ... [and] so many challenges associated with what I like to call the global commons, like cyberspace, trade, and space — [there will be] so many challenges moving forward." That makes right now the best time — and most important time — to reevaluate inefficient defense spending.

Washington has made that project more difficult, however, with a "complete absence of the kind of principled, pragmatic compromise that has always made our system work." Sequestration might have forced a reduction in defense spending, she said, but it forced unsophisticated and damaging cuts across strategic areas like readiness and IT. Combined with what she called a poor record of managing troop draw-downs, the situation in Washington is crippling the military's ability to cut in some areas and invest in others in smart, nuanced ways.

In a better political climate, though, the best spending cuts would target infrastructure, Flournoy argued. This doesn't mean infrastructure in the traditional sense — roads, bridges, etc. She's talking about closing bases and training facilities and, perhaps with the most potential for landmines, cutting personnel. As the conversation's moderator, Joan Dempsey, pointed out, "the explosion in pay and benefits ... is really driving the cost up. There's one study that showed that at the rate we're on, without reductions in the defense budget, by 2021, the entire defense budget will be 80 percent pay, benefits, and related personnel costs. That has to be a factor in how we re-structure the department and how we pay for it."

Cutting jobs of any kind certainly wouldn't be a popular solution in Washington right now, but according to Flournoy, that might be the cost for the United States of reasserting itself as the world's military superpower.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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