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Need to Know, November 18, 2011: The Pentagon: Hard times, hard choices

This week’s special edition of Need to Know shines a light on the debate over the Pentagon’s budget, exploring whether the $700 billion defense budget can be cut and, if so, how and by how much. Fred Francis, former Pentagon correspondent at NBC, moderates a roundtable discussion between military experts who discuss the risks and benefits of cutting U.S. defense spending on military pensions, health care, deployments and equipment. Ray Suarez hosts.

Watch the individual segments:

The Pentagon: Hard times, hard choices

Former NBC Pentagon correspondent Fred Francis hosts a panel of military experts who discuss the wisdom of spending on multi-billion-dollar airplanes and ships, and whether it compromises troop training and safety. They also explore whether military health care benefits and pensions should be cut, if overseas troop deployments dating from the 1940s and 1950s are still necessary and how the Pentagon can deal with foreign threats without spending too much during difficult economic times.

Thomas Donnelly on sparing the Pentagon’s budget

Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the Pentagon’s budget should be spared the kind of major cuts being made to federal spending across the board.

Watch more full episodes of Need to Know.


  • Dnguyenhongquan

    I did not understand some of the difficulties that America faces, but if
    U.S. defense budget cuts, would you still be a military power again

  • Anonymous

    The comment that “we must stop going to war to protect oil companies” needs a reality adjustment. Oil is the life-blood of the industrial world we now live in. Without it, it cannot exist as it is. It energizes all the capabilities, from transportation to everything else. The oil companies are seeking and are at those places the oil can be found. In order to have access to that oil we have to protect their ability to access it. That’s simple. What is more difficult is for us to understand that oil is not unlimited, and we must begin understanding that industrial capability cannot continue growing in a finite world. So we must first begin doing all we can to cut off our population growth because it is what exacerbates every growth problem we have, from congestion to pollution to consumption. And in the U.S. what most fuels this growth is legal and illegal immigrants.

  • John Ross

    I fully agree, but how can we persuade enough people to think about this reality and change it? How can we convince people to safely recycle all the tons of garbage, sludge, junk, chemical waste, smoke and fumes; and how can we persuade them to peacefully reduce the human population with family planning education to live in peace and balance on this slowly shrinking planet? I try to explain to people why we are all headed for ecocide and extinction, but they can’t comprehend it while they’re so overwhelmed with the problems of everyday existence. 

  • Anonymous

    Information is funneled through economic-political “systems.” Both capitalistic and socialistic/communist are similar in that they have primary purpose of maximizing industrial growth; consequently, information about limits is suppressed. Societal values determines fertility rates more than availability of contraceptives, and the factor that most increases U.S. population growth is illegal and legal immigration. That is why both Demos and GOPers just make show of limiting immigration. Money and power believe that the assumed unlimited growth will only result with growing population and with access to cheap labor.

  • John Ross

    Well said, but if that situation is beyond social control then we are a doomed species since this slowly shrinking planet Earth cannot possibly support a relentlessly growing population and its garbage-dumping economy. The human race, in spite of its intelligence, is apparently led by the instinctive impulse to grow, regardless of consequences. Is there a rational, workable solution?

  • Pete Hill

    reduce pentagon spending by  a very large amount – about 75% reduction total.

  • CBH

    One way to focus the Defense Department is to reduce it’s available budget. Reductions force decision makers to choose more efficient systems. The show had it right when it stated that personnel are more important than the large ticket weapon systems. The rate at which new inventions are made make most expensive items obsolete before they are fully deployed. So it is important to improve troop sustainability systems over buying “new” weapon systems.

  • SoldierMan

    As a life-long Army professional, I know that the Pentagon budget can be safely cut, provided 85% of those cuts come in equipment procurement and civilian contractors and not in uniformed personnel, and provided that the cuts are in direct proportion to similar cuts made in every other federal government entity, including in federal employees, contractors and entitlements.  The primary purpose of DoD has become an excuse to employ enormous numbers of people in wasteful non-fighting endeavors.  As one example – it’s been almost a half century since any jet “fighter” actually fought anyone; those hyperexpensive flying supercomputers are simply employed as incredibly expensive artillery or missile systems.  There are literally hundreds of such examples anywhere a knowledgeable thinking military man looks. 

    One major problem is that the great post-Cold War “Peace Dividend” reduced military personnel by almost half, shifted enormous funds to equipment procurement employing many thousands of voters, and gave any future “nation-building” responsibilities to non-military agencies, civilian contractors and “allies” - all of whom proved totally incapable of executing such missions even with the increased personnel and funding they had been provided.  If Congress is going to keep playing those vote-buying games, the very last thing you can cut are uniformed military personnel, and most especially Army and Marine ground forces – the people who actually engage with other humans up close and personal, where they live.

  • john molanphy

    Our bloated military budget is obscene; war profiteers are taking us for a ride. Cut it all, but double veterans’ benefits. If we bring all our brave troops home now, there will be no more disabled veterans. Also shut down our thousand-plus military bases,both overt and covert. End our Evil Empire.  And today’s announcement of more military in Australia is absurd and a provocation to the Red Chinese to retaliate with even more military wasted spending. Stop the Madness.

  • Absurdity

    “I know that the Pentagon budget can be safely cut, provided 85% of
    those cuts come in equipment procurement and civilian contractors and
    not in uniformed personnel, and provided that the cuts are in direct
    proportion to similar cuts made in every other federal government
    entity, including in federal employees, contractors and entitlements”  Why do “other federal government entity’s” need to be cut in direct proportion?  It’s not a tit-for-tat game.

  • SoldierMan

    Sure it is.  It certainly isn’t the usual tactic of always getting “someone else” to pay for “me”.  Or is that what you are advocating?  It’s ALWAYS “someone else”, isn’t it?  The nation is now WAY beyond that childishness.

  • Absuridty

    There’s no reason in the world to go around forcing oil from other countries regardless of our need for it.  If these DOD supported industries can’t afford it on the world market, well then I guess it will force choices to be made in other directions and it will be the end of cheap oil that finally forces us to reassess our energy policy.  But to be so arrogant as to think that we have to wean ourselves by reducing our population so as not to disenfranchise any American or illegal immigrant while our defense department is killing civilians in foreign countries that don’t have nearly what we have is absurd.  I surely hope I’m misinterpreting your comments.

  • maryantonette

    Cut the Pentagon’s budget 55%-75%. They deserve deeper cuts than other departments, since they were bloated more than other depts.

  • Absurdity

    By all accounts our reproduction rates have dropped below what is needed to have a survivable race.  It mostly poor immigrants and other poor undereducated countries that are increasing the population but as the European’s die out and they become more and more the economic forces of the world there will be less time for baby making.

    Obama has had the largest campaign against illegal immigrants in our nation’s history so there will be plenty of jobs that Americans won’t want to do – meat packing plants, working in the scorching sun picking tomatoes, weeding gardens and enough construction to suck up $23 trillion dollars in infrastructure repairs/upgrades and jobs so horrible you wouldn’t even want to put Mike Rowe to do them.

  • Wayne B

    Why do you think the cons are forever pushing to eliminate abortion and as in the Mississippi case eliminate birth control and force every pregnancy to term? It is for the workforce of the future with an additional component of overpopulation standing outside every factory gate to force lower wages for those that do have a job. They want the population to increase dramatically while keeping half of that population in poverty to lower their labor costs.

  • Mike563

    Working within the defense bureaucracy I came to know the only thing worse than not enough money is too much money.  The Pentagon has developed so many bad habits over the years that the budget is rife for major cuts.  Also, a large part of the defense budget is politically based as opposed to national strategy based (i.e. bases we don’t need, weapons systems we don’t need, legacy systems that are maintained that shouldn’t be, etc.).   I’d say that a 50% budget hair cut for DoD is entirely reasonable and may very well result in a more effective defense.  Got to wonder how a HQ that employs 25K people daily gets anything done – it is a horrible inefficient.  If McDonald’s worked like this a Big Mac would have to cost $150 each.  We all know what would happen to them then,

  • Wayne B

    It is not an instinctive impulse to grow, it is a Capitalistic driven need to grow customers. Everywhere there is a prosperous population the birth rate drops to equal or slightly below the rate to maintain the population. Part of the efforts of the powers is to break the chain of inheritance so only they possess the wealth, force most people into poverty where the birth rate will be higher and constantly and repeatedly try to cripple the rights of women to determine for themselves how many children they must bare. It might also be pointed out that the foreclosure crisis that the corporate bought politicians refusal to do anything about and the so called reverse mortgages are intended to remove from the people the financial ability to fight back in the case of corporate abuse in the courts since in most cases the only way to pay for such a fight for the average person is to mortgage their property and hock all of their possessions. No property in the hands of the average person means that the corporations always win by default.

  • Thildebrand

    What is not addressed or discussed in the program or in these comments is why the US has such a huge military-industrial complex in the first place.  Answer: it is to maintain the US empire and its world hegemony, and the dominance of the US-based banks and large corporations. It ensures that the terms of trade are always in the favor of these powerful interests.  

    I favor far more than a mere reduction in the defense budget.  The department itself should be eliminated and replaced with a Department of Peace, and our obscenely corrupt empire should be dismantled.  Our political leaders should be focused along with other nation’s leaders on how to solve the problems of the world we all share (such as climate change) rather than wasting our resources competing for military and economic dominance like a bunch of barnyard roosters.  

  • Richard Pelto

    You are!!

  • Richard Pelto

    Absurdity: There is something called the “shadow effect” of population growth. It means that it takes 70 years of below replacement fertility for population to begin decreasing. Given we are now expensively and desperately seeking depleted resources, and ecological degradation is so widespread that species have been dangerously depleted, fish stocks are disappearing, and farm land is paved over, what do you think will be situation 70 years from now if we continue as is, doing our best to maximise growth? Name one country except Russia that has decreased in population. Even Italy and Japan which have had below 2.1 fertility rates for many years are continuing to increase. And you’re believing political manipulation when you believe that Obama is “campaigning” against illegal immigration. He has adopted a policy to make sure that no illegal is deported who has not committed a “serious” crime. Manipulation of numbers and stats has allowed him to make appearance that he is dealing with the illegal immigration problem that all polls show has strong public support. Plus he supports every legislative reward proposed (and past) that provides additional reasons for illegals to come to this country. Also, in years past, buses were made available for people to pick berries, fruit, etc, but today farmers don’t have to pay for that, the cheap labor is there for them generally when they need it because of the huge numbers unsustainably coming here. 

  • Richard Pelto

    You’re one of the rare ones who see what needs being seen, John. The only “solution” is recognition that we are entering a new era requiring a political/economic system that is entirely geared to understanding what sustainability truly means (not oxymoronish sustainable growth), and not geared to an assumed unlimited growth as capitalism and all forms of socialism were and continue being.

  • Richard Pelto

    Are you serious? Would Vietnam want to attack a society with half the armaments and military capabilities that the U.S. now has?

  • Bob Owens

    The Department of Defense let out contracts on 11-18-2011 with a cost of $7,790,889,506. This total was obtained from a DoD website The questions and concerns this program addresses starts by examining each transaction. 

  • John Ross

    I agree with your economic assessment, but we also need to examine our human species if we ever expect to bring our problems under some kind of rational control. As you suggest, each and every women should be guaranteed the legally protected right to decide if and when to birth her child. That would bring the human population down to environmentally sustainable numbers on each continent. Apparently, only a working democracy, even as corrupt as this one, has any chance of achieving a reasonable solution to our human dilemma. 

  • John Ross

    I agree with what you say, but I don’t enjoy being so rare. There needs to be a social movement for life on Earth to continue.  

  • Stevenw Smith

    Seems that we have a pathological foreign policy if we feel a need to police the world. Mr. Donnelly compares a projected $700 B 2012 military budget to $15 T net wealth of US. True comparison should be the proportion of annual revenue from taxes to support entitlements, debt service, and military. Eisenhower was prescient when he taked of a military-industrial complex in the ’50s. No real reason that our national interests should have a price tag of $700 B when China is a quarter that and 20 military intense countries spend less cumulatively. Maybe we need to become mercenaries! Let Japan, Korea, Western Europe, et. al. pay full cost for our military presence there. No money, we leave. I’m tired of financing guns instead of butter. Retain the $50 B a year cut as a first step on ending our insane foreign policy placing us in every dog fight.

  • Bob Heberle

    Why is it in these discussions is the reality that China has NO desire to conquer or defeat our country because we owe them TOO much money. We are the main engine of their economic success. Now I would suggest that an economics 101 major would be able to understand that you do NOt destroy your market where you realize your greatest profits! They want us to continue to flourish to maintain their superior balance of trade advantages!

    And secondly, if, just if China wanted to occupy us, what natural resource do we possess that would be  worth risking an all out war? Are our corn and soy fields worth that much? Can you envision the Chinese military stationing their finest and brightest at all of the corners acres of Iowa and Minnesota as well as the other bountiful agricultural states? The constant drumming of the arms manufacturers of China as a military threat is ludicrous. So stop it. 

  • Stevenw Smith

    Question to Mr. Suarez: Thomas Donnelly of American Enterprise Institute compared the annual defense budget $500 -700 Billion depending on year to our “national wealth” (GDP?) of $15 – 16 Trillion. Why didn’t you ask a follow-up asking him to frame defense spending as a percent of federal spending within a year. Mr. Donnelly did mention 60% annual spending went to entitlements and debt service. Guess is that another 25-30% is defense. Benjamin Disraeli, a Prime Minister in England in the 19 century once said “There are three types of  lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. You permitted Mr. Donnely to compare apples to oranges without challenge. Why?
    More interesting would have been to compare Mr. Donnelly’s $15-16 Trillion “national wealth” figure to our current $15 Trillion debt and note we are approaching 100% of GDP, a sure sign a country is headed to trouble. He and panel members should have been asked two other questions. 1. What proportion of national debt is attributable to defense spending since 1960? 2. What proportion of defense spending from 1960 forward is attributed to all the foolhardy wars and military actions?

    Thank you for presenting both views. I learned from the panel and Mr. Donnelly. Please follow up on improper use of statistics to support positions.

  • John Molanphy

    Steven Smith’s comment is spot on ! – We must learn to ask the right questions.

  • Wclayjones

    The question Mr. Suarez posed was for viewers to vote on
    four (4) Pentagon Budget “solutions” and provide our reasoning commentary. To


    In the short run, the Pentagon budget should be subjected
    to small cuts. Over the long haul, significant cuts will be required to force
    more effective use of funds and greater operational efficiency. The issue is
    necessarily complex. Making major cuts immediate have very broad, largely
    negative ramifications (like greater unemployment at a very inappropriate time). No cuts or an increased budget fail to recognize that
    risk to our way of life involves much more than military/terrorist issues.


    Congress reacts to security-related concerns by creating
    more bureaucracy and throwing money at perceived weaknesses, as though risk must be minimized. Homeland Security
    and the Pentagon exemplify the fallacy of using money as a “cure”. Instead the
    prognosis is more akin to an addiction.


    For decades we have allowed our Legislative
    Branch to stray from its purposed path. Refocusing that role on what is best
    for the American People will be nothing short of revolutionary. The
    responsibility for those corrections lies with the Voters, as it should. There
    is no greater safeguard to our way of life than a well-informed, involved

  • Thildebrand

    The legislative process and the agenda is largely controlled by the moneyed interest and large corporations who also largely finance our election campaigns.  A well-informed, involved constituency is certainly necessary, but is in way sufficient to affect the revolutionary changes you allude to.  Our supposed democracy is a sham, and that is what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about.  

  • Thildebrand

    I meant to say, above:”… but is in NO way sufficient to affect the revolutionary changes you allude to.  Our supposed democracy is a sham, and that is what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about.”

  • Emetzner1

    I think the military budget shouldn’t be cut unless were sure no one else can give us problems

  • Glenn

    It was obvious that PBS set up this show to parrot their liberal propaganda that we do not need a strong defense.  It’s no wonder I don’t watch PBS because of this very reason. 
    The most glaring example of a stupid statement was Andrew Bacevich claim that TSA has prevented a terrorist attacks since 9/11.  He gave no credit at all to the war on terror or specifically using hellfire missiles and drones.  Andrew Bacevich is a idiot! 
    I think most of the panelist were totally looking at defense spending in the short term.  I think it’s much more important to take a long-term view on defense spending.  Especially, in light of 20th century’s history of producing evil tyrants that want to run the world and destroy entire civilizations in the process.  My view is certainly contrary to the panelist that were on the NEED TO KNOW.   I think governments including the United States have been totally unprepared to confront evil tyrants in the 21st century.  Cutting the Defense Department spending will only seen by the Islamic Jihad-ists as weakness and invite them to attack.
    At the end of World War I, Gen. Foch considered the Treaty of Versailles to be “a capitulation, a treason” because he believed that only permanent occupation of the Rhineland would grant France sufficient security against a revival of German aggression.  As the treaty was being signed Foch said: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years”.
    Gen. Foch was right!.  If the governments of the world and people had listened to Gen. Foch may be World War II wouldn’t have happened.
    The appeaser in chief of history, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich with a piece of paper from Hitler espousing that because of this piece of paper there would be peace in our time.  How naïve!  As a result, 50 million people died in World War II.  The mindset of appeasement was disastrous.
    We are not at peace now!  We are in a war against the extremist Islamic Jihads.  I think history will prove President George W. Bush right in the fact that he was willing to confront the threat that Islamic jihad-ist presented. 
    In my opinion the panelist on the Need to Know do not believe there is a threat to world peace by the Islamic jihad-ist.  In the long term I believe Islamic Jihad-ists’ strategy is to acquire nuclear weapons and use them.  And in conjunction with Iran run by extreme tyrants like, Ahmadinejad, Islamic Jihad-ists could threaten world peace by setting off nuclear weapons in the United States or Israel.  Also, I think this long-term strategy the Islamic Jihad-ists is to destabilize Pakistan and take over that government which will provide them another source of nuclear weapons to the Islamic Jihad-ists.
    So the questions that needed to be asked;
    1.     Do you believe that withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan will appease the Islamic Jihad-ist and stop them from seeking nuclear weapons?
    2.     Do you believe that withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan will make Pakistan more stable and secure from an Islamic jihad-ist takeover?
    3.     Do you believe that Iran will give a nuclear weapons to the Islamic Jihad-ists when they have them?
    4.     Do you believe that Islamic Jihad-ist would set off a nuclear weapon in the United States or Israel if they had one?
    5.     What is it worth to prevent a nuclear weapon from being detonated in the United States by terrorists? 
    6.     What would it be worth to prevent a nuclear attack on Israel?
    I believe that Reagan’s motto of  “peace through strength”.. It’s obvious that none of the PBS panelist on the Need to Know believe in this.

  • m-t-e

    I was a first-time viewer with this week’s show. During the Reagan administration I ‘lied,cheated, and stole’ (that’s what in our Air Force office we called the budget process) for a living. We had so much money that I even got an extra 400K for a project (contracted-out) just because I said I needed it. While much time has passed since those heady years, I expect the basic conflicts have not changed.

    First, large project procurements have a project office. The military personnel assigned to that office have a goal of ensuring the success of that project–whether it’s a bomber, a ship, a complex computer system, or fill-in-your-blank here. The assigned military personnel work diligently for the project’s success because their Efficiency Reports (annual appraisals which are a cornerstone for advancement) depend on the continued success of the project, or, if some of the personnel are close to retirement, they can look to be employed later by one of the contractors on the project. (Note that lobbying is not an issue here, military personnel are smart and can carry their own quite well. It’s a matter of what you know and knowing how the system works.)

    Then there are the contractors. Their jobs depend on these projects. (Of course the contractors also make sure either they or a sub-contractor has a significant presence in important (in some cases almost all) Congressional districts.)

    Then there is Congress. Do constituents realize that when a Representative or Senator ballyhoos that X-number of jobs will be coming to the district that this is a direct tie-in to their votes for that project?

    I’m not saying that this is bad or good–but that it just is. So when Ray Suarez states that their has never been an audit of DoD procurement, doesn’t anyone think it would be a good thing? It is so sad to see marginal projects continue to be funded. Some of these big- (and not so big-) ticket items could easily go away.

    I, for one, would like to see an honest scrub done. But it is difficult to imagine it happening.

    This country has asked a hell of a lot of our volunteer military for more than ten years. Few of us even know anyone in the military, much less have a member of our family–even a cousin!–serving the country. So I am for continuing benefits to military members with one exception, I would ask those who retired with a retirement income above a certain level (somebody smarter than me gets to make this determination) be asked to contribute more for their medical care just like people with higher retirement incomes get assessed more each month for their Medicare insurance.

    Okay, enough. I’ll leave you with this. Whenever a blue-suiter (active duty Air Force) in the office received their Orders for their next assignment/duty station, the word always was that they would have to spend a year on Fourteenth St first–in order to get their self-respect back. (For people outside the Beltway, Fourteenth St in DC was once populated by not nice people like pimps and prostitutes.)

  • Anonymous

    Excellent interview with the 3 critics of current military spending.

    However, somebody should have pointed out that military/security spending is not limited to the Defense Dept., but is littered throughout the budget.  Most relevant studies I have seen, have put total such spending at 30% or more of the total budget.  This would be at least about $1.2 trillion of the current budget.  I don’t recall either, anybody stating that the U.S. spends about as much as the rest of the world’s nations combined, in total military/security spending.

    Of course, this level of spending can only be maintained by nurturing a high level of fear in the general populace, such as the ridiculous propaganda campaign (with images of mushroom clouds) that got us into the Iraq War.  Currently, neo-cons are engaging in a desperate, but fortunately ham-handed, campaign to scare us into war with Iran.

    The second interview was pretty much useless.  The gentleman was no expert on actual military needs, just a flack trying to justify the wasteful status quo.  Thus, he used very misleading numbers (like using numbers of personnel to say the military is smaller since end of the Cold War, when war is much more automated than it used to be, making that a useless basis of comparison), and even outright lied – stating that Obama has cut the defense budget when he’s done nothing of the sort (unless you buy into that ludicrous argument that increasing spending slower than the rise in GDP is a cut).

    I guess PBS had to do the second interview to protect themselves from charges that they’re too liberal.

  • May20080

    The idea that we should be the world’s police, and protect everyone, even when the US, is facing tough financial problems, shows how insensitive some of people are to our economic needs.
    I would like to ask Mr. Thomas Donnelly from the American Enterprise Institute,who seems to be oblivious to our economic needs. How can he justify not auditing the pentagon, when every other government agency, is subject to an audit? Why is it that people continue to hold on to this outdated antiquated view that if we leave Iraq, or Afghanistan, they will fail, and we will have to go back and rescue them.Did these countries invited us to come in and save them? Or did we lie our way into war? The idea that Iraq,and the rest of the middle east need us so bad, is a myth. We are no more relevant, to those countries, than we are to countries in south America, or Europe. Our problem, is not lack of military capability. Our problem is fiscal irresponsibility,financial mismanagement, lack of economic foresight. We need bold leadership, that can fight through this propaganda,and deliver result for the masses. Stop catering to a few defense contractor, and campaign donors, start listening to the people.

  • Fneuberg

    I never liked the idea of the U.S. being the world’s cop – not even during our standoff with the U.S.S.R.. We must be able to keep ourselves safe. We also must help nations which cannot afford to produce the arms and have insufficient population to help themselves.

  • Joe

    The defense department should be audited and all the programs looked at.  It is however, part of our economic might.  It fosters fear and respect and provides us with a great deal of economic leverage.   I do think the budget can be made smaller and the money better used.  Especially because many of the current threats to our nation are technologically oriented and so are the solutions (i.e. cyber attacks, market manipulation and alike).  China is now are greatest threat and no tank, warship or any other military weapon.  They are fighting with us on the intellectual playing field, by copying our copy written material and selling their copies to us and the rest of the world at lower prices.  they will out innovate us in the future and that is our biggest challenge.  We can meet any nation with our military on the battlefield but we are loosing the intellectual battle, with China, India and many others.  We need to invest better in education and convince our people that knowledge and the quest for knowledge is the greatest thing in the world, not a military victory in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.  We can and should deploy our forces in other places (i.e. Africa, South America and other places) because we can same a lot of lives with few losses of US troops because of the rest the rest of the world has for our military.

  • Richard Pelto

    We’re not being the world’s cop. We’re being the world’s most powerful force for enforcing unsustainable growth while maximally expanding power. Only recently have some in establishment got the hint that pursuit and maximization of power creates illusions and self-deception.