Small Wars Journal

The Bowles/Simpson defense cuts are not "risk neutral"

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the bipartisan National Fiscal Commission, made news yesterday when they released their proposal to dramatically cut the federal government's fiscal deficits. Their proposal called for a $100 billion cut to the Defense Department's top line in 2015, a 15% cut from the Pentagon's February 2010 spending plan for 2015 of $666 billion.

To accomplish this cut, Bowles and Simpson describe a variety of illustrative ideas, including pay freezes, cuts to contractors, overseas base closing, cuts to procurement (they seem to have a particular grudge against the Marine Corps), cuts to research, and more.

Implied in the Bowles/Simpson suggestions is an assumption that the United States in 2015 will still be fighting a medium-sized war in Afghanistan or somewhere else. The Pentagon Comptroller's budget projection out to 2015 includes a $50 billion placeholder for "overseas contingency operations (OCOs)," a sum large enough for a multi-brigade stabilization operation. Retaining that assumption of open-ended ground combat consumes half of the savings that Bowles and Simpson wish to achieve.

As a corollary, the Bowles/Simpson list does not include any savings through headcount reductions. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that returning the Army to its pre-2007 size would save over $92 billion over 10 years. General James Conway, the recent Commandant of the Marine Corps, expected that after Afghanistan, the Marine Corps' headcount would shrink by 27,000, saving $20-25 billion over ten years.

The Bowles/Simpson proposals for Pentagon savings are not "risk neutral." By protecting ground forces and assuming ongoing stabilization wars, they place a priority on mitigating risks from failed states and ungoverned spaces. But by instead cutting procurement and research, the proposals ask the country to accept higher risks from emerging peer competitors like China and higher risks to its alliances in East Asia and around the Persian Gulf.

The Bowles/Simpson cuts are merely illustrative and will no doubt be ignored by policymakers. But Bowles and Simpson have affirmed the principle that all of the federal government's functions will have to contribute to deficit reduction if policymakers are to agree on a grand budget deal. $100 billion in 2015 is, at least for today, the Pentagon's share. The question now is how to apportion the geostrategic risks the country is —to take.


Close all of the service's war colleges and any bases associated with them, that'd generate $3-4 billion in annual savings. . .

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 11/12/2010 - 4:34pm

I believe you're mistaken about the Bowles-Simpson proposal protecting forcestructure. In fact while it's hidden by the co-chairmen, the savings from the overseas basing proposal and shift of military billets to civilian billets, is mostly from reductions in endstrength. They get estimated savings of $8.5 billion from demobilizing about 55,000 active duty service members now deployed abroad and estimated savings of $5.4 billion from converting 88,000 military positions to 62,000 civilian positions. So overall you're talking about a 10% reduction in endstrength under their proposal.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 11/12/2010 - 1:54pm

I hope they take into account Gates preemptive Defence cutbacks.


Thu, 11/11/2010 - 9:54pm

Cut what you will form the Pentagon but add MUCH MORE to the scurge of today's combat injuries: TBI!

The vet suffering TBI is by definition the dearest of family burdens to us Americans who all benefit from his/her self-sacrifice. That should be the motto of 21st Century Americanism: TBI in vets is every American's burden, particularly the medically teained. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is brand new because, as part of a constellation of traumatic injuries, it usually killed its victims. But trauma surgery stopping the bleeding and halting the shock saves the body but can NEVER yet heal the brain. The injured brain is mainly white-matter injured because the fat-insulated nerve fibers occupy more of the brain than the nerve cell bodies. Unlike the cells, the many feet of microscopic fibers are in many ways regenerative. Unfortunately, that regeneration is not a faithful relaying of the traumatized fibers. As a result, over weeks, months and years they RECONNECT in all sorts of ways, many good and reparative but most disordered, firing constantly in a disruptive manner to the normal brain functions. That mislaying of the wires with pathologic misconnections takes a long time to settle into some final form. So, just as cancer is a new disease every month or so, TBI is an ever evolving pathology whose variability is immense and time to stabilization into a form that categorizes the patient quite long. As a neurobiologist I insist that anyone who passes definitive diagnosis on TBI soon after trauma is criminally negligent. We cannot allow veterans with TBI to be treated by government accountants anymore than we can allow civilians to be treated by insurance company accountants. We must recognize that INTACT VS. TBI is a diagnostic decisions than cannot be made definitively within less than 10 years.

If you are a scumbag politico who wants to pretend that our injured vets must be properly cared for then you can limit diagnosis to a few months from trauma. But if you are a REAL PHYSICIAN then you will not allow a phony diagnostic patterning in neural trauma. Because of the former's prevalence and the latter's shortage, vets are self-medicating with pain and anxiety relieving drugs that are too often toxic, habit-forming and mentally destabilizing. While their social&moral skill deteriorate under such self-medication, their capacity and know-how for violence does not deteriorate and one can well expect ever increased burdening of our society with those it nonchalantly pretended it had diagnosed and treated.

America has short-sold so many citizens in the name of corporate cannibalism that we may soon find that we have no more volunteers and a lot of avenging ex-volunteers to cope with. By extending TBI diagnosis to AT LEAST ten years, we offer hope to any vet that if he/she finds self dominated by frightful abnormalities out of his/her control that he/she will NEVER have to face it alone. No physician should ever forget his/her Hippocratic Oath when a desperate vet in search of treatment comes to that physician help because he/she fell through the holes in the VA's nets. Patriotism means becoming one's post-service brother's keepers to the fullness of one's abilities as a vet is forever a son/daughter or mother/father for whom we bear a sacred trust, especially physicians.

I think most of us understand the necessity for intelligent reductions in government spending, even my neighbor's 8 year old son understands he shouldn't spend more than he makes with his weekly allowance. That is why he is motivated to explore other avenues to increase in revenue (some have been interesting to say the least).

What worries me about some of the proposed cuts is that they may provide short term benefits for savings, but long term set backs for investing in our future. Cuts in foreign aid for example (admittedly we could use the funds we have now much more effectively if State didn't control them) may actually make us less competitive globally. We see the impact of China's aggressive use of dollar diplomacy. It is creating economic opportunities for them, while our lack of "effective" engagement is shutting off opportunities for U.S. businesses. Can't help but think the free-trade agreement proposed with S. Korea wasn't somehow undermined by China's investment in S. Korea.

While a fan of SWJ and the need to improve our capabilities to effectively wage irregular warfare, certain key speakers have hyped this requirement to the extreme, and now we have policy makers whose strategic view of the world is largely focused on instability and terrorism. They largely ignore other threats posed by nation states, and if we fail to invest in the capabilities needed to deter or defeat these threats now, it will probably be too late to do so at the 11th hour. This also sends a message to the world on the will and the ability of the U.S. to honor its treaties and provide an effective defense posture to maintain relative stability between nations, which is healthy for the global economy (and the U.S. economy).

I just hope that hard decisions are made based off of reason instead of what's popular politically at the moment.