Congressional Research Service Misses the Point on Defense Budget

Michaela Dodge /

A soldier of the 2nd cavalry regiment participates in a virtual combat training on the Reconfigurable Vehicle Tactical Trainer (RVTT) at Rose Barracks in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr January 25, 2012.

The recently released Congressional Research Service (CRS) report “A Historical Perspective on ‘Hollow Forces’” misses two important points in its analysis of the defense budget, impacts of the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, and the usage of the term “hollow force.”

First, the report does not even attempt to analyze impacts of the sequestration process under the BCA. Second, the report fails to address structural deficiencies within the Department of Defense’s budget itself.

While the BCA imposes about $600 billion in cuts to a broadly defined defense category of spending, the sequestration process would apply $500 billion or more in deficit reduction to the defense account over the nine-year period covering fiscal years 2013–2021. This process will apply defense budget cuts in addition to those imposed by the spending caps. According to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, reductions at this level would lead to the smallest ground force since 1940; a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest level since 1915; the smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force; the smallest civilian workforce since the Department of Defense became a department; and about a 20 percent reduction in investment accounts (procurement plus research, development, testing, and evaluation), which could lead to cutbacks in many programs, large and small.

All these reductions are front-loaded and therefore will have significant immediate implications for readiness, modernization programs, and research and development. Under budget caps, the FY 2013 defense budget will be 18 percent lower than the President’s FY 2011 request. After the sequestration process, the FY 2013 defense budget will be 25 percent less than the President’s FY 2011 request. All these cuts are coming on the top of cuts and cost-efficiency savings made since President Obama took office. More than 50 major weapons programs, at a value of more than $300 billion, were already cut or delayed. Before the BCA took effect, the Administration told the military to cut almost $600 billion more over the next 15 years.

The second problem with the CRS report is that it does not consider lessening resources available for modernization (procurement and research, development, testing, and evaluation) within the Department of Defense’s (DOD) budget. For example, the department spent more than $226 billion on modernization in FY 1985 (in FY 2012 dollars). This was 39 percent of its total budget. By way of comparison, $188.4 billion was to go to these accounts under President Obama’s original budget request for FY 2012. The level of modernization funding is estimated to decline by about 23 percent over the four-year period. In terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, the decline will be roughly $54 billion (in FY 2012 dollars), or about 29 percent. By 2016, modernization funding could fall to about 26 percent of total DOD funding for its core program.

The CRS report concludes that “the use of the term ‘hollow force’ is inappropriate under present circumstances.” It also points out that in several ways, the challenges the military faced in the post-Vietnam years differed from those the services confronted during the Clinton presidency. While that might be true, Heritage’s James Carafano observes:

…how a military goes hollow is not as important as the fact that the nation is left with a force that cannot do the job as advertised. What is critical to understand is that if a military can’t field trained and ready forces; conduct current missions; and prepare for future threats, it is inadequate. With the Pentagon facing a dramatic reduction in capability, it is irresponsible to suggest that this isn’t something worth worrying about.

Congress must take steps to stop the sequestration process as soon as possible.