Cadets march into their commencement ceremony on June 13, 2020 in West Point, New York.

Cadets march into their commencement ceremony on June 13, 2020 in West Point, New York. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Leaders Should Prioritize Troops Over Weapons Amid Defense Spending Cuts, Former Officials Say

There’s no “easy button” for finding items to cut the budget.

If the Biden administration and Congress decide to cut the Pentagon’s budget, they should resist cutting troops and instead trim weapons, two former defense officials argue in a new American Enterprise Institute report.

“When we hear the discussions about the size of the force, it's about the number of airplanes, the number of ships, and the number of brigades,” said John Ferrari, a retired Army major general who is a visiting fellow at the conservative think tank. “[W]e need to change that focus and move to a more special operations model of thinking about people, where you build the units and the structure around the people you have.”

Ferrari and Elaine McCusker, a former acting Pentagon comptroller who is also at AEI, argue that the Defense Department’s budget should grow by 3 to 5 percent beyond inflation. 

Pentagon officials have argued such increases are necessary to meet the missions laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

With the fiscal 2021 defense budget around $740 billion, a 5 percent annual increase would push the 2027 budget to $1 trillion — not counting inflation.

That’s unlikely, with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House and a federal deficit that had been ballooning even before trillion-dollar pandemic relief efforts.

McCusker called for the military branches to develop their budget in a more joint fashion.

“I think we really need to look at joint solutions across the enterprise and the budget as a whole when we go and decide what sort of capabilities we need to meet our strategy,” she said on a Tuesday Zoom call with reporters.

The military services currently build their budget proposals, then submit them to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which decides what projects get cut or more money. Ferrari argues for reversing that process.

“There may be a way now to turn that all upside down, where we can program across the department first, and then the services come in with the ideas second,” he said. “There's a big discussion that needs to be had about using information technology to enable the resourcing process to really be up-ended within the Department of Defense.”

Ferrari acknowledged that “holding on to people, but cutting structure, will be very controversial.” Lawmakers typically resist calls to cut multibillion weapons projects in their districts.

With a declining defense budget seems inevitable, McCuser said there is no “easy button” for where to make cuts.

“I don't think there's low-hanging fruit,” she said. “I think that the department really went through that years ago under the Budget Control Act, and there's not going to be a way to absorb big decreases in the budget without a lot of impact. And what John and I are proposing is that we learn from the way this has been done in the past so that we don't expose the force to a lot of risk.”