Budget lessons of Osama bin Laden
May 09, 2011, 4:00am

By: Lawrence Korb and Laura Conley and Alex Rothman – Politico.com

The latest defense headlines understandably are dominated by the details of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs. And while policymakers are beginning to draw lessons from that raid for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they should not overlook its implications for a topic much closer to home — the defense budget.

With at least some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in agreement that defense spending must be part of U.S. deficit reduction efforts, the bin Laden operation could be the trigger needed to galvanize action on sensible spending reductions.

The United States now spends more in constant dollars on defense — regular defense spending, plus funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — than it did at the height of the Cold War or the war in Vietnam. The Obama’s administration’s request for the new fiscal year includes approximately $553 billion in baseline spending alone, plus about $118 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And these totals don’t cover the defense programs funded through other government agencies, notably the Energy Department, to cover U.S. nuclear weapons programs.

Defense spending at this historic high is simply unsustainable. The chairmen of President Barack Obama’s deficit commission — former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) — recognized as much when they released last year a proposed $100 billion in defense cuts in 2015.

The president’s recent pledge to cut $400 billion in security spending by 2023 is another notable attempt to bring our defense budget under control. Making these cuts in a sensible and politically palatable way, however, will be a real challenge. The bin Laden operation can help.

Despite a decade of war and 100,000 American troops and an additional 40,000 from other nations in Afghanistan, the most significant operation in the so-called war on terrorism was carried out not by a counterinsurgency campaign involving large numbers of boots on the ground but by elite counterterrorism forces supported by painstaking intelligence work. As the president receives pushback from Republicans on withdrawal goals in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, this operation is a good example of the type of assistance we can provide our allies without placing significant forces on the ground.

Shifting our emphasis in Afghanistan to counterterrorism operations and removing approximately a third of the ground forces currently deployed there would be smart strategy and can save about $30 billion a year in U.S. defense spending.

A shift in emphasis to counterterrorism operations abroad could also provide a basis for a tough conversation about military personnel levels. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon has increased the size of the Army and Marine Corps in order to meet the demands of frequent deployments overseas.

Scaling back our troop presence in Afghanistan and completing the scheduled withdrawal from Iraq this year should allow the U.S. to gradually draw down the 92,000 active-duty personnel added to the ground forces in 2007.

The all-volunteer Army was never intended to support drawn-out conflicts without a draft, and maintaining the enlarged force created to do so isn’t smart policy for our troops or our country. About $12 billion a year can be saved by making this cut.Finally, bin Laden’s death gives us the opportunity to examine the culture of fear that drives so much of the defense spending debate. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has undertaken a “do everything, buy everything” approach to defense, as though we might someday reach a dollar amount that would purchase perfect security. This is a dangerous and futile pursuit that will ultimately weaken our economy and our country.

As bin Laden demonstrated, unexpected and unconventional threats can prove more dangerous than the state-on-state warfare for which many of our defense procurement programs are optimized. And eliminating threats like bin Laden depends more on good people — smart analysts and courageous troops — than on multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers or next generation fighter jets. Now that bin Laden is gone, we need a clear-eyed appraisal that matches likely threats to necessary capabilities, rather than a panicked effort to spend our way out of uncertainty.

There are a number of programs in the defense budget that can be trimmed. The U.S. Navy currently possesses more firepower than the next 20 largest navies combined, many of which are U.S. allies. With such an overwhelming advantage, the Pentagon can maintain U.S. naval superiority while reducing procurement of DDG-51 destroyers and littoral combat ships, which cost $2 billion and $1 billion, respectively, per ship.

Similarly, the United States now fields 11 aircraft carriers, while no other country has even one of comparable size and power. Given this tremendous imbalance, reason would dictate that the Pentagon hold off on building additional carriers, which cost $15 billion a pop, and consider retiring two of our existing carrier battle groups.

Cancelling the V-22 Osprey helicopter, an expensive system that offers few benefits over legacy helicopters, and ineffective missile defense programs offers additional avenues for savings, as would reducing procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In a recently published paper, Capt. Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby, two strategic advisers to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen argue that “security means more than defense.”

In this age of fiscal austerity, restructuring our military to meet the threats of the 21st century will free up resources for other programs that ensure our long-term prosperity. The death of Osama bin Laden marks the end of a painful chapter in American history. Hopefully, this successful mission will usher in a new national security policy based on reason, rather than fear.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Laura Conley and Alex Rothman are researchers at the center.