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Pentagon Math, Hagel, and the President’s Budget

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, and Department of Defense (DoD) Comptroller Robert Hale testified before the House Armed Services Committee regarding the President’s budget yesterday. Like most discussions of the Pentagon budget, it was chock full of fuzzy Pentagon math.

Hagel and Dempsey both referred to $487 billion that was allegedly taken from the Pentagon’s budget last year. “We’re still trying to figure out where to find the $487 billion,” said Dempsey. The confusion is understandable, because he’d need Marty McFly’s time machine to track down this money—it’s coming from future, larger Pentagon budgets between 2013 and 2021.

This $487 billion is, in fact, not a cut at all. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense Larry Korb explained, it will keep “the defense budget at its current level for the next few years before allowing it to return to moderate growth.”

Pentagon math like this, where reductions in increases are counted as savings while actual budget levels rise, doesn’t actually save taxpayers a dime. This gimmick isn’t too dissimilar from claiming a raise you didn’t receive as lost income on your tax returns (do not attempt).

Not to be outdone by Hagel and Dempsey’s fuzzy Pentagon math, Buck McKeon (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, claimed: “The budget we received asks us to take another $120 billion out of defense.” Having dispelled the $487 myth, we’ll ignore McKeon’s reference to “another,” and focus on the $120 billion figure.

Presumably, McKeon meant $150 billion, which is what the President’s budget purports to reduce Pentagon spending by over the next ten years. While this $150 billion would be an actual reduction to Pentagon spending, unlike the $487 billion figure, it is still $350 billion below the $500 billion that sequestration requires be removed from the Pentagon’s budget by 2021. Thus, because sequestration is current law, the President’s budget is actually proposing a $350 billion increase in Pentagon spending.

Unfortunately, both the President and Congress are behaving as if sequestration isn’t law.

The President simply ignores sequestration in his budget—assuming that it will disappear before the beginning of FY 2014 on October 1. This is a return to “Hope” for Obama, hope that there will be a “grand bargain” based on his budget that results in Congress repealing sequester.

Meanwhile, Hagel was desperate to remind Members at the Hearing that sequestration—the result of a law Congress passed—wasn’t mythical. “The reality of sequestration is not some fairy [sic]—it’s law,” said Hagel.

Despite the Pentagon math and the refusal to acknowledge sequestration, there was agreement amongst the panel of witnesses that Pentagon spending could be reduced.

“Can money be cut from the defense budget over the next ten years that will not negatively impact our national security?” asked Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA).

“I don’t know of an institution that can’t find efficiencies, and I don’t know that the Department of Defense is any different,” responded Hagel. And Comptroller Hale chimed in, “I think we can find savings all across government.”

Later in the hearing Hagel acknowledged that, “For a ten year period we had pretty much an uninterrupted flood of money going to DoD.”

To prepare for the possibility of actual reductions to the Pentagon’s budget, Hagel mentioned creating the “Strategic Choices and Management Review in order to assess the potential impact of further reductions up to the level of full sequester.”

The panelists made it clear that they required Congress’s help in this process, repeatedly asking for “flexibility, time, and some budget certainty,” as Hagel said. And, they made a very simple request—don’t make us buy things we don’t need.

In his prepared remarks, Hagel said, “Last year DoD submitted proposals for changes in Air Force and Navy force structure; some were rejected by Congress…including the retirement of seven Aegis cruisers and two amphibious ships at the end of FY 2014 when funds appropriated for the operation run out.”

The Pentagon was also forced to add back more than 70 aircraft to the Guard and Reserve, and “These shifts were forced primarily by political realities, not strategy or analysis....[R]etaining excess air capacity in the reserve component is an unnecessary expenditure of government funds that detracts from more pressing military priorities outlined in the defense strategic guidance,” said Hagel

Dempsey echoed these concerns in his prepared remarks, noting “We simply cannot afford to keep infrastructure and weapons we do not need without getting the reforms we do need.”