Cuts to Defense -- President Obama and Congress, Be Careful What You Wish For

As Congress grapples with the budget deficit and debt ceiling, some are eyeing the Defense and Intelligence budgets hungrily. There is no doubt they will be cut, and perhaps cut substantially. But anyone who thinks they can balance the budget on the back of defense is wrong; there is not enough money in the defense budget to dig us out of the hole we’re in. Indeed, even eliminating the Defense budget entirely will not repay all of the nation’s debt, nor balance the wildly escalating entitlement costs.

If and when the national security budgets are cut, let’s do it like grownups and swallow the medicine. The defense budget isn’t a number the military pulls out of thin air, it’s a carefully arrived at aggregate number based on the forces and weapons deemed necessary to achieve the military missions the nation deems essential. Can that number be cut? Sure. Are there some gold plated weapons systems that can be eliminated? Probably. Can we reduce the number of contractors and consultants? Definitely. Indeed, we should being doing those things even if we weren’t facing budgetary Armageddon.

But the cuts being contemplated by some are too sharp and significant to do what previous administrations have done – cut down on readiness, training and spare parts or stretch out procurement lines of new weapons systems. We can’t cut hundreds of billions of defense dollars by merely eliminating ‘waste, fraud and abuse’. We can’t even get there by pulling all US forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defense cuts on the levels being contemplated means we will need to radically rethink our entire approach to national security.
We’re talking about options like greatly reducing the size of our military to one which is not ready to deploy immediately, but is ready to mobilize; defense expert Richard Betts calls it a “readiness to get ready”. We would have to dramatically reduce our standing armed forces, and go back to a pre-World War II system of a small, well trained officer corps able to train and lead a quickly mobilized force of draftees in case of crisis. We would continue with research and development, but rather than build large numbers of state-of-the-art weapons systems, we would build a handful of prototypes that our professional military could hone and train on in peacetime, and build many more of if a major world power threatened war.

Another option to achieve draconian defense and intelligence budget cuts would be to decide which missions the United States is willing to give up. Are we willing to pull the U.S. Army out of Europe and Korea?

Or the Navy out of the Persian Gulf or Japan? Or the Marines out of the Philippines?

Or get the Air Force out of the bomber business, or give up its nuclear missiles?

Or for the Navy to no longer control the world’s sea lines of communication and trade?

These are the sorts of missions the U.S. would have to give up, and reduce our forces accordingly in order to make up hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts.

Whatever happens, keep in mind two things.

1) We cannot do to our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans what we so shamelessly did to our Vietnam vets. During that war we dishonored the men and women who served, somehow laying blame for an unpopular war on their shoulders. That was shameless enough. But the unconscionable thing we did was after the Vietnam war ended, when we turned our backs on the veterans and their families. We did not adequately care for the wounded, nor provide adequate support for the families of the dead.

2) We cannot expect our reduced military a few years from now to do the impossible.

When the Reagan administration came into office in 1981 and I joined Defense Secretary Weinberger’s Staff at the Pentagon, we saw what the post-Vietnam defense budgets had done to our military. We had ships that couldn’t sail, and planes that couldn’t fly because they didn’t have the fuel to operate them, or the spare parts to repair them. For every tank that was operational, there was an incapacitated one right parked right next to it, to be cannibalized for parts. We had pilots and sailors and soldiers and marines that hadn’t trained with real weapons or ammunition. We had some enlistees whose salary was so low they qualified for food stamps.

And what was that hollowed out military capable of after a decade of neglect? Operation Eagle Claw, a mission to rescue the American diplomats held hostage by the Iranian government. Of the eight helicopters that set out in April 1980, two couldn’t make it through a fine sand cloud. A third one had damaged hydraulics. The mission aborted, but not before another helicopter crashed and the rest were left behind when fire destroyed two other aircraft.

The failed Iranian hostage rescue mission became a symbol of the failed Jimmy Carter presidency, and President Carter himself believes it contributed to his defeat that November and the election of Ronald Reagan.

So, President Obama, take note. You can gut the defense budget. But it will come at a great cost, not just to the nation, but perhaps to you, too.

Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on's "DefCon3"-- already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.