“Extraordinarily difficult and very high risk.” That’s how General Martin Dempsey, the Army’s chief of staff and Obama’s pick to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bluntly described proposals by the president and certain lawmakers to cut national security spending by anywhere from $400 billion to $1 trillion or more over the next decade.

During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, General Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the nation’s four military services had already begun to examine the possible impact of Obama’s April 2011 proposal to cut yet another $400 billion from the Department of Defense’s so-called “baseline” budget.

The baseline budget—which excludes the supplemental costs for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as defense-related programs funded by other federal agencies—is what the Pentagon uses to pay annually for military personnel and benefits, operating costs and maintenance, weapons procurement, research and development, construction, and housing.

As the chart below illustrates, the Defense Department’s baseline spending, when viewed as a percentage of total federal spending, has generally declined since 2003. And when viewed as a percentage of gross domestic product, the Pentagon’s baseline budget has stayed relatively constant at levels between 3 percent and 4 percent.

General Dempsey cautioned that severe cuts to the Pentagon’s baseline may demand a fundamental change in America’s strategy and posture worldwide. “We’ll make some adaptations on how we do things,” he said. “But we may reach a point where we have to recommend to the president that we have to adapt or revise our strategy.”

That same day, at a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, Chairman Randy Forbes (R-VA) outlined four questions that he thinks proponents of drastic defense cuts haven’t been asking:

“As we consider our deficit, federal spending, and the impact on our defense budget, I believe we should be asking four questions: First, ‘What are the threats we face?’ Second, ‘What resources do our combatant commanders need to protect us against those threats?’ Third, ‘What do these resources cost and how can we obtain them as efficiently as possible?’ and fourth, ‘What can we afford and what are the risks to our nation if we do not supply those resources?’”

As the vice chiefs of America’s four military services testified on the issues raised by Chairman Forbes, two key themes emerged from the hearing.

First, the military services are currently able to meet the personnel and equipment requirements of the Department of Defense’s Central Command—which has an area of responsibility that encompasses the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—but they are not always able to meet the requirements of other regional combatant commands. The comment of Admiral Jonathan Greenert, vice chief of naval operations, was representative: “No, we cannot meet all of the other combatant commanders’ validated demands” for resources, but “we help them manage those risks.”

Second, all four vice chiefs reiterated that deep defense cuts in the future will cast doubt on the ability of the military to meet America’s current worldwide posture and strategy, and called instead for long-term budget stability and predictability:

* General Peter Chiarell, Army vice chief of staff: “Whatever reductions are made carry risk, and with reductions we will not be able to do as much tomorrow as we are able to do today.”

* Admiral Jonathan Greenert, vice chief of naval operations: “We are looking very, very hard at a $400 billion cut. We don’t totally understand the total impact that’s going to have on the force, but when you double that . . . $800 billion or more, that is -- you're reaching an area there that I think would definitely we'd have to look very, very hard at our strategy, what we can and cannot do.”

* General Phillip Breedlove, Air Force’s vice chief of staff: “A $400 billion cut would force us to constrict our force in order to maintain a ready and fit force to fight. . . . Beyond $400 billion, we would have to go into a fundamental restructure of what it is our nation expects from our Air Force”

* General Joseph Dunford Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps: “I think, within $400 billion, we would have some challenges in taking those cuts. I think, if they would exceed $400 billion, we would start to have to make some fundamental changes in the capability of the Marine Corps.”

As the question and answer session with lawmakers concluded, General Dunford said that any cuts to the Pentagon’s baseline budget need to be made “in a measured way so that we don't end up at the end of the day with a force that’s hollow in the future.”

It remains to be seen whether the United States will take budgetary steps that move us closer to—or further away from—the future “hollow force” that Pentagon planners and outside experts worry about.

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