Voters surveyed favor targeted Pentagon cuts, including reducing the Navy’s carrier fleet

By Bill Bartel

An in-depth national survey of voters, including hundreds of Virginians, reveals serious doubts about keeping a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, building the new Joint Strike Fighter and increasing the nation’s defense budget, according to a report released today.

Most participants in the survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation said they support cutting the annual Pentagon budget by $12 billion, including varied reductions in air, ground and naval forces and cutbacks in missiles and nuclear weapons. Most didn’t want to make changes to the Marines or special operations forces.

Participants who live in Virginia, where defense spending is a major part of the economy, favored cuts of $5 billion that would shrink the nuclear arsenal but not cut Navy or Air Force personnel.

Most of those surveyed, including Virginians, also favored canceling the next-generation F-35 fighter jet, which has been plagued by cost overruns, and cutting the size of the carrier fleet to 10 or fewer ships. Eliminating the fighter would save $97 billion over two decades, while losing one carrier would save $7 billion over 10 years.

When considering carriers, 60 percent of those polled nationally and 55 percent of those in Virginia favored reducing the fleet by at least one ship.

They also favored investing in a new long-range stealth bomber and disagreed with proposals to reduce the number of submarines armed with nuclear weapons.

When weighing broad arguments about the military budget, about 2 of every 3 voters endorsed the argument that national security was a top priority and that defense spending made up a relatively small part of the economy.

However, on the flip side, 8 of every 10 voters, including Virginians, endorsed the argument that cuts can be made because of wasteful or unnecessary spending – including efforts by members of Congress to “keep unneeded bases open” in their districts.

Program director Steven Kull said the results – based on lengthy questionnaires – show that voters are discerning in how they look at paying for the country’s military.

“You tend to look at people as being fundamentally pro- or anti-defense spending,” Kull said. “But that’s not true.”

Unlike relatively short telephone polls of public opinions, university researchers based their findings on a detailed 30-minute online survey that focused on decisions about defense spending that confront Congress and administration officials.

Voters first were presented key facts about the defense budget. They were given pro and con arguments addressing the United States’ role in the world, the size of some branches of the military and the need for specific programs. Defense policy experts, including Republican and Democratic congressional staff members, were consulted during the survey’s preparation.

Participants were a cross-section of 7,126 voters – including 471 Virginians – recruited by national research firm Nielsen Scarborough with the results weighted to reflect a balance of age, race, gender, income and education. In addition to a national study, the research also focused on voters in Virginia and seven others states. Several, including Virginia, California and Texas, are among the top recipients of defense dollars.

Kull noted that while the number of defense cuts favored by voters varied by state, there was general agreement that Pentagon reductions were necessary, regardless of a state’s dependence on military spending.

“There was no relationship,” Kull said. “The level of defense spending within the state had no effect on attitudes about defense spending.” It seemed that those participating were not making their choices based on their self-interests as much as what was good for the country as a whole, he said.

The university program’s goal is to develop a way for voters to learn the facts about defense spending, hear arguments facing Congress and then make their own decisions, Kull said. He hopes it will encourage people to make their wishes known to their elected leaders, he said.

“We’re creating something where there’s a shared set of facts. Where people can go in and deal with the issue in a shared space rather than in these separated ideological silos,” Kull said. “We’re encouraging people to use them in schools.”

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