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The Pentagon's Butter and Guns Debate

Interviewee: Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow, Defense Budget Studies, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
June 21, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has vowed to tackle what he calls out of control Pentagon spending. He's singled out Army programs like the Future Combat System, Air Force programs like the F-22 fighter jet, and in May 2010 he took aim at a key Navy capability, suggesting the service's mission of delivering Marines and their gear to the beach may soon be obsolete. Not surprisingly, the potential downsizing has prompted debate on the future of American warfare.

But these are more than isolated efforts to trim fat from individual military services. Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, says the Pentagon chief's austerity measures are part of a broad trend to cut spending amid a time of fiscal crisis. Harrison says that Secretary Gates has been "very explicit in saying the gusher of funding ... that opened up after 9/11 is being turned off, and it's going to stay off. He is challenging the services to really step up now and make some challenging decisions." Harrison adds that an underlying structural deficit in the American budget will challenge Pentagon spending for years to come. Personnel and healthcare costs--the so-called "butter" portion of the defense budget (PDF)--have grown exponentially over the last decade, Harrison says, and must be reigned in if the Pentagon is going to successfully dig itself out of the funding money pit.

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