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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rick Perry’s Talking Point on Defense Cuts

Rick Perry says the U.S. is at risk because “our spending on defense has declined 21 percent over four years.” But that includes war funding, which has sharply declined now that U.S. combat troops are out of Iraq and leaving Afghanistan.

The base defense budget, which does not include war funding, has declined by a more modest 6 percent (12 percent when adjusted for inflation) from a post-World War II high set four years ago in fiscal year 2010.

The Texas governor, who is considering running for president, talked about defense cuts in speeches on Oct. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Nov. 10 in New Hampshire (typically home of the first presidential primary).

At the Reagan Library, he warned that a “hollowing out of our military” will invite U.S. enemies to attack “at home and overseas” (beginning at the 17:27 mark of the library’s video).

Perry, Oct. 27: When you see the military buildup of China, the depletion of our own military forces, with a reduction of spending of some 21 percent in the last four years, how can you not think of a previous era soon after the end of the war in Vietnam, and wonder if we’re not once again inviting threats to our interests at home and overseas by allowing the hollowing out of our military.

He repeated the 21 percent figure when speaking at an event in New Hampshire celebrating the founding of the U.S. Marines. He again cited the steep decline in defense spending in the context of threats abroad.

Perry, Nov. 10: Today, our spending on defense has declined 21 percent over four years. Today, threats are not in retreat, they are on the rise — from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, to the emergence of ISIS and the continued struggle to secure Afghanistan.

We asked the governor’s office how he arrived at the 21 percent figure, and it cited an analysis of the fiscal year 2015 defense budget released in September by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Sept. 4: Adjusting for inflation (using the GDP price index), the base DoD budget grew 61 percent from its most recent low in FY 1998 to its most recent high in FY 2010 — higher than the previous peak in FY 1985 of $552 billion in FY 2015 dollars. Since FY 2010, however, the base defense budget has fallen by 12 percent in real terms through FY 2014. When war funding is included, the total DoD budget has fallen by 21 percent since FY 2010.

First, let’s note that the 21 percent cited by Perry includes war funding — a category of funding that the Pentagon calls overseas contingency operations, or OCO.

Fiscal year 2010 — the baseline used in the report and cited by Perry — began on Oct. 1, 2009. At the time, the U.S. was fighting two wars. Overseas contingency operations cost $162.4 billion in fiscal 2010 to help support 168,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to defense budget documents.

But U.S. combat troops left Iraq in December 2011, and combat operations are winding down in Afghanistan and will end by December of this year. President Obama has announced that the U.S. will leave a residual force of 9,800 in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. in fiscal 2014 spent $85.2 billion in war funding — roughly half what it did in 2010. The administration has requested $59 billion for fiscal 2015, which began Oct. 1.

Todd Harrison, the author of the report cited by Perry, says “the base budget is a more appropriate measure to use if the point is to show how much the military has been ‘hollowed out.’ ”

The base defense budget declined 6 percent in the last four years, from $527.9 billion in fiscal 2010 to $496 billion in fiscal 2014, according to the fiscal year 2015 budget overview released in March by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)/Chief Financial Officer. (See Figure 1-2 in chapter one, page 4.) Adjusted for inflation, the base budget was down 12 percent in four years, according to Harrison’s report.

But, as Harrison’s report also showed, the decline in base defense funding over the last four years is from a post-World War II record amount. Harrison analyzed defense funding since fiscal 1948 and found that the base defense budget adjusted for inflation peaked in fiscal year 2010.

There is no question that total defense spending (including war funding) and the base defense budget (without the war funding) are down compared with four years ago. And Pentagon officials are among those who aren’t happy about it. But Perry’s selective use of budget data distorts the scope of the cuts by comparing today’s total defense spending with fiscal year 2010, a year when the U.S. was fighting two wars and had a base defense budget that reached a post-World War II high.

— Eugene Kiely, with Lauren Shapiro