Cuts vs. slowdowns

Feb 26, 2014 By Steven R. Peck

That's near the heart of debate on the big new defense bill

During his many battles over federal spending, former Wyoming U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson often pointed out (or tried to) the difference between actual budget cutting compared to slowing the rate of budget increases.

The latter move -- holding the line on budget increases -- invariably is characterized as a "budget cut," even when not one dollar actually has been eliminated.

That argument over the definition of terms is coming up again this week as Congress begins debating a new military spending bill that would scale back scheduled increases in military benefits for retirees as well as planned pay increases for active duty forces.

"Congress wants to slash military pay," say opponents of the plan, eager to play up the risks faced by anyone who takes a position that could be characterized as anti-troops these days.

"Manpower costs are eating us alive," say those backing the restructuring, arguing that guarantees made to both active-duty personnel and veterans years ago reflected a different military era, a different fiscal regime, and a different political climate.

So it is, then, that Congress is debating a proposal from Secretary of State Chuck Hagel, backed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, not only to slow the growth of funding for military pay and benefits, but also to shrink the U.S. military back to pre-World War II levels in terms of uniformed personnel.

The smaller manpower plan is advocated by some military leaders because of the experiences of U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years. The lesson, as they see it, is that the U.S. no longer faces a realistic prospect of having to launch an invasion -- or defend against one -- in a fashion that would require a 250,000-troop force in one place of the sort made famous in World War II.

That's not how wars are fought anymore, the thinking goes. Today's forces rely a bit less on "boots on the ground," and a bit more on technology away from the front lines and on an individual soldier, Marine, sailor or airman with better equipment on his person and a far greater array of resources behind the scenes. A drone strike, in other words, can accomplish today what a battalion charge accomplished a generation ago.

To say the least, there is a surplus of self-proclaimed experts on all things military in this country, often as not accompanied by a ferocious political sensibility as well. That makes any change in broad military policy difficult to accomplish. Now, in an election year colored by ongoing budget fights being fought at life-or-political-death pitch in Congress, it makes for a tough environment for measured debate on military spending upheaval of this sort.

Is a budget slowdown the same as a budget cut? And is the U.S. military the forum in which to contest that argument? To paraphrase the slogan from an old commercial for a particular brand of automobile, this is not your father's military anymore. Unfolding before our eyes in Congress is the battle to determine whose military it is going to be.

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