The Defense Department is already slated to trim $350 billion from its budget over the next decade, the result of this summer's debt ceiling deal. If Congress can't reach a consensus on deficit reduction by the supercommittee's Nov. 23 deadline, the Pentagon stands to lose another $500 billion over the next decade thanks to an automatic trigger built into the Budget Control Act. Worse, the Defense Department and other affected agencies won't have much say over how those cuts will be applied.
In a lunchtime address, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen urged Congress to make targeted cuts that conformed to strategy.
"Don't do it in an easy fashion and say, 'Let's just cut. Everybody take a percentage,'" said Cohen. "That's not the way to deal with national security."
Instead of waiting for the ax to fall, defense leaders hope they can kill two birds with one stone by planning ahead -- preparing the country's military posture for the future while reducing overall costs at the same time. Some scholars at Thursday's event suggested downsizing the United States' permanent bases overseas and embracing a global-commons strategy emphasizing the steady policing of cyberspace, outer space and the oceans. Others called for an alliance-focused approach that would turn responsibility for regional security over to America's partners around the globe.
The dollar amount of cuts isn't what should make policymakers nervous, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget scholar. Even accounting for the potential automatic cuts if Congress fails to act -- what some are calling the "sequestration bogey" -- the Pentagon's budget would contract by less than a third. By comparison, the U.S. military budget shrank by 26 percent after the war in Vietnam, 34 percent following the Cold War, and by 53 percent after the armistice in Korea. In some cases, budgets were slashed even faster than what current proposals suggest.
"So, 31 percent is actually within the norm of what we would expect at the end of a major buildup," said Harrison, referring to the tapering of America's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It doesn't have to be a doomsday scenario."
Real savings could come from reining in military pensions and healthcare benefits, Harrison suggested. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta last month also endorsed pension reform, proposing a transition to 401(k)-style retirement plans for future crops of career officers.
But any structural changes aimed at fundamentally changing how the Defense Department operates will take time, something policymakers will not have if the supercommittee pulls the trigger on automatic cuts.
"It is not hard to postulate a scenario where you could cut substantially more than $450 billion in defense," said David Berteau, a CSIS defense analyst, "as long as the dramatic majority of those cuts are in the out-years, which gives you time to create the strategy that aligns with it. But that's not the scenario that's playing out right now."
Moises Naim, a leading economist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, likened some lawmakers' diehard commitment to defense spending to the stages of grief described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
"When you look at the numbers of the American economy, and when you look at the numbers of military spending, and you base the whole thing on the assumption that there is no waste there -- that therefore you need the same amount of money otherwise you cannot pull it off, that any cut will essentially result in a decline of our capacity to defend the United States -- if you start with that, then that tells me everything I need to know about what stage we are in," he said.