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Panetta's challenge: Not just cut, but cut quickly

As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, it does a penniless United States less good -- and even less good for President Obama and other politicians -- if DoD can't yield big budget "savings" until years down the road. For practical and political reasons, Secretary Panetta will be charged with seeing what he can effectively cut soon, and that could make his job even more difficult, Kaplan writes:

If the goal is to find fast ways of cutting the deficit, cutting payrolls is fastest of all. When money is authorized to buy a weapons system, it takes a while—sometimes a long while—to spend that money. For instance, according to the Fiscal Year 2012 edition of the National Defense Budget Estimates (also known as the Pentagon's "Green Book"; see especially Table 5-11), only 15 percent of the money budgeted for a Navy shipbuilding project actually gets spent in the first year. Another 25 percent is spent in the second year, 20 percent in the third, 15 percent in the fourth, 12.5 percent in the fifth, and still another 12.5 percent in the sixth. (Similar figures apply to building military aircraft, missiles, and armored vehicles.)

To spell out one implication of this unalterable fact of military contracting, the Fiscal Year 2012 budget includes $2 billion to buy one [Arleigh Burke-class] destroyer for the Navy. Of that sum, only $300 million (15 percent of it) will wind up being spent in the first year. By the same token, if Congress or the White House removed this $2 billion destroyer from the budget, only $150 million would be saved in the first year. (And the Pentagon would probably have to pay "cancelation costs," which are routinely incorporated into weapons-procurement contracts.) In other words, killing weapons systems is not a very good way to cut the deficit quickly.

All this is why Kaplan believes the Army will be the biggest target in Austerity America, because cutting soldiers, and their payrolls and other benefits, frees up that money on the balance sheet much faster.

And if you want to pick on the Army, you also could argue that one of its biggest and potentially most expensive priorities, the Ground Combat Vehicle, may not survive in its present form. Lawmakers have scratched their heads as to why the Army even needs a big new armored personnel carrier. Although the brass has a clear case -- its current generation of vehicles is maxed out, in terms of size and power, and the Army needs something that can carry an entire squad -- all the budget blades flying in Washington may find a quick and easy target in the GCV, given how early it is in development. It's just like anything else: The more momentum the program gets, the harder it will be to stop. Everyone in the Building and on the Hill understands this, and they'll no doubt push or pull accordingly.

For what it's worth, Kaplan sees the F-35 as a potential target, too -- although as you'll see, he got its name wrong:

Cutting Air Force or Navy personnel would mean getting rid of airplanes or ships, a move that would sire a separate set of controversies. (Then again, it's likely that Panetta will cancel or cut back some planes and ships, if just to spread the pain; the Air Force and Navy's troubled Joint Strategic Fighter, aka the F-35 stealth aircraft, is a likely candidate. But there will be limits here, as his predecessor, Robert Gates, already cut a few dozen systems, and further cuts would spark political fights, especially given the already-high unemployment rate.)

By contrast, cutting Army and, to some extent, Marine personnel would mean erasing brigades or divisions from the roster and warehousing their weapons—which could then be transferred to other units as training or replacement gear, for more savings still. None of this is necessarily to say that the Army or Marines should be slashed—only that they almost certainly will be, given the traditional end-of-wars syndrome, the enormous pressures on the federal budget, and (a new factor) an emerging coalition of anti-war Democrats and anti-spending, isolationist Republicans.

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