Todd Harrison, Washington’s defense-budget wizard, says letting Pentagon spending grow along with inflation, between now and 2023, actually will yield more than the $400 billion in savings Obama is seeking. Keep your eye on the ball here: the $400 billion in cuts aren’t cuts as you and I understand them — they are reductions in the projected future rate of growth. And because defense spending has close to doubled over the past decade — with future spending increases folded into future budget plans as naturally as dew forms on the morning grass — the U.S. military finds trimming its future spending to the rate of inflation a near-death experience.

“I think we need to cut defense,” Obama said Friday, “but as commander-in-chief, I’ve got to make sure that we’re cutting it in a way that recognizes we’re still in the middle of a war, we’re winding down another war, and we’ve got a whole bunch of veterans that we’ve got to care for as they come home.” But as Harrison, the budget whiz at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments makes clear, the Obama Administrations has proposed no real spending cuts for the Pentagon. ~Mark Thompson

Harrison highlighted some details of the FY 2012 budget request in his analysis.

Harrison identifies what he calls hollow growth in the military budget:

Overall, nearly half of the growth in defense spending over the past decade is unrelated to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—personnel costs grew while end strength remained relatively flat, the cost of peacetime operations grew while the pace of peacetime operations declined, and acquisition costs increased while the inventory of equipment grew smaller and older. The base budget now supports a force with essentially the same size, force structure, and capabilities as in FY 2001 but at a 35 percent higher cost [bold mine-DL]. The Department is spending more but not getting more.

Sen. Coburn has released his fiscal plan, and in the section on the Department of Defense he makes the same point:

Over the last thirty years, Congress increased annual appropriations to the Department of Defense by about 44 percent in constant, inflation adjusted dollars. Today‘s non-war defense budget is larger than the total defense budget during the Vietnam War when we had over 500,000 troops fighting overseas.

However, this significant increase has not increased the size and strength of our military as traditionally measured. Despite higher levels of funding, active duty troop levels have decreased by 30percent, the number of Navy ships is down 45percent, and the Air Force‘s fighter and attack aircraft are down more than 50 percent. Former Secretary Robert Gates noted in a speech last year that current submarines and amphibious ships are three times as expensive as
their equivalents during the 1980s and we have fewer of them.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases an annual report of cost overruns of major weapon systems. Between 2001 and 2008, they found nearly $300 billion in cost overruns and schedule delays for major defense acquisition program.

Coburn has proposed a very ambitious (and therefore almost certainly doomed) $9 trillion reduction plan over ten years, of which $1 trillion would come from spending on the military. The $1 trillion figure is comparable to the amount envisioned by Domenici and Rivlin, and Coburn’s specific reductions include recommendations from both Domenici-Rivlin and Bowles-Simpson. Philip Klein summarizes some of the more notable recommendations:

On defense, Coburn proposed ways save money by reforming the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, reducing the nuclear weapons stockpile, limiting the growth of the defense workforce, returning to pre-2007 levels of active duty military personnel, and reforming the department’s health care programs, among other changes.

Writing at Commentary, Alana Goodman expressed the knee-jerk hawkish view of the plan:

Getting rid of wasteful spending in the defense budget is one thing, but strangling it with cuts will endanger our troops and dangerously diminish America’s standing in the world.

All that one needs to do to appreciate why this is such a ridiculous response is to read through the recommendations Coburn makes. The changes to TRICARE that Coburn recommends account for $184 billion by themselves, and Coburn has identified $963 billion of discretionary spending in the military budget to be cut. There is no danger of Coburn’s spending reductions “strangling” the military’s budget. As Goodman’s reaction indicates, there is also no danger that Republican activists, pundits or other politicians are going to endorse what may be the most credible fiscal plan on offer.

Update: For a good description of Coburn’s specific cuts, read Michael Warren.