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Will Pentagon Budget Cuts Hurt Military Readiness?


Now, as the U.S. maneuvers to try to end the war in Afghanistan, here in Washington, President Obama has set his sights on the Pentagon. To be specific, the Pentagon budget. Right now the U.S. spends about as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. The president says that's too much and he's calling for $400 billion worth of cuts in security spending by 2023. Now whether that can be done without damaging the military is an open question.

Gordon Adams believes it can. Adams oversaw military budgets in the Clinton White House. He's now a professor at American University. Good morning.

Professor GORDON ADAMS (Foreign Policy, American University): Good morning.

KELLY: So give me an example, an area where the military can cut 400 billion in cuts without hurting moral, without hurting military readiness.

Prof. ADAMS: Oh, there are lots of places. You're going to have to look at what missions are important, what missions are less important. You're going to have to look seriously at the size of the force, how many people have we got in the military. Gates has said he wants to bring down about 47,000 in 2015 and 2016; it'll probably be doubled

KELLY: Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Prof. ADAMS: Right. And it probably a little more than that and it may be a little sooner than that. Gates has taken what I call a kind of a pinking shears approach; he's trimmed to the edges for the last couple of years. Now he's going to have to get in and dig pretty hard.

KELLY: When you say a pinking shears approach, I mean Secretary Gates has made it one of the signatures of his tenure that he has pushed hard for some fairly controversial and pretty big spending cuts already.

Prof. ADAMS: Not that big, really. He says he's found $178 billion in the next five years in the defense budget. He turned around and gave $100 of that back to the services, so he really has found $78 billion over a five year period. It's not a deep effort yet.

We've got to do something about that large number of people doing commercial functions, running the depots, sitting at desks, pushing paper, doing the contract supervision. All those areas are going to have to come in for tough scrutiny because it's probably a bigger sharing infrastructure than the militaries of almost any other country in the world.

KELLY: I gather you believe that being forced to make a cut of this size in the neighborhood of $400 billion could actually lead to an improvement in the military. How does that work?

Prof. ADAMS: Well, I think what we'll get out of it, if we do it right, it's going to look much slimmer around the hips, if you will. That infrastructure piece has got to come down. It's going to buy equipment tailored to mission and not equipment that you can get because the resources are generous.

And we've done it before. In the 1990s we probably executed the most successful build down that we've ever had in American military history. We took 36 percent out of the defense budget. We took 700,000 people out of the active duty military, we cut procurement budgets in half, and we ended up with a force that managed to use Saddam Hussein as a speed bump in 2003 when we invaded Iraq. So you can get a leaner and meaner force with more of it at the point of the spear and less of it back in the back office.

KELLY: Isn't there a point though where, as with anything else, you get what you pay for?

Prof. ADAMS: Well, I'll tell you our Cold War average in non-combat areas for defense budgets is probably in the $400 to $450 billion a year range in constant dollars. Right now we're at about $530 billion. So we could take $80 to $100 billion off of the base budget in defense and maintain a perfectly good force. In fact, we argue taking a trillion dollars, not $400 billion, out of the defense budget over the next 10 years, which is only 15 percent of the projected money we're going to put into defense, and end up with the global, dominant military - leaner, meaner, ready to go.

KELLY: I'm going to ask how you see all this playing out, politically. Let me play you a line. This is from an interview that Republican Senator Rand Paul gave CNN.

Senator RAND PAUL (Republican, Kentucky): I believe in a strong national defense, but conservatives will have to compromise and we will have to cut military spending.

KELLY: Cut military spending, now those are not words that we expect to hear from Republicans

Prof. ADAMS: This has been described to me by some Republican friends as the circling firing squad in the Republican Party. What's interesting about this, historically, is that every time we've had a defense build down - after Korea, after Vietnam, at the end of the Cold War - it has been executed by a Republican administration, not by a Democratic administration.

KELLY: What about from the point of view of Democrats? Is it a tough sell with two wars still under way - in Iraq, Afghanistan, now war underway in Libya - to sell Americans on this idea that the military should be taking a big cut?

Prof. ADAMS: I don't think it's going to be as tough as anybody imagines, because the issues of the debt and the deficit and our departure from Iraq and Afghanistan are setting the stage for a natural reduction in the defense budget. And with the Republican Party divided on the subject, I think there's going to be a lot of open running room for looking seriously at defense and entering this stage of a build down.

KELLY: Gordon Adams, thanks so much.

Prof. ADAMS: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Gordon Adams. He's a professor at American University and he oversaw military budgets back in the Clinton White House.

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KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.