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Putting the Pentagon on a Diet: Will Bad Times and a Bad Economy Finally Discipline the Pentagon?

Is that the wake-up smell of coffee wafting through the halls of the Pentagon? After a decade and a half of unparalleled budget growth, top Defense Department officials are finally talking about the possible end of their spending spree. And they’re not alone. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and successive administrations have not only repeatedly resisted efforts to control Pentagon spending, but regularly pushed for more dollars to go into the defense and national security budgets. And many of them still are.

Is that the wake-up smell of coffee wafting through the halls of the Pentagon? After a decade and a half of unparalleled budget growth, top Defense Department officials are finally talking about the possible end of their spending spree. And they’re not alone.

In recent years, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and successive administrations have not only repeatedly resisted efforts to control Pentagon spending, but regularly pushed for more dollars to go into the defense and national security budgets. And many of them still are.

Nonetheless, with the current economic situation bringing suffering, foreclosure, and unemployment to millions, and concerns about spiraling deficits as well as a staggering national debt, the first faint signs of a possible mood change in Washington on the issue of the Pentagon budget are appearing. Military spending may, in fact, finally be edging its way into an increasingly fierce budget debate. This could prove a rare window of opportunity, unmatched since the moment the discussion of a “peace dividend” faded into the woodwork bare years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Overmatching the World

Last February, President Obama announced the formation of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to advise his new administration on options for addressing the national debt. The commission has just begun its deliberations and already some of its members are stating publicly that, as they consider their options for cutting government spending, “everything is on the table,” including the military budget. In the Washington we’ve known since talk of that “peace dividend” disappeared, this simple fact qualifies as eye-opening.

In response to the formation of the commission, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), long an outspoken opponent of unnecessary military spending, has convened a panel of national security experts, the Sustainable Defense Task Force. Its job is to generate a series of recommendations on how to cut the defense budget while preserving national security. Frank plans to submit these recommendations to the Commission in June.

If you need a signal that something is changing, then check out the Pentagon itself. Its top officials are beginning to recognize the necessity of carefully reexamining the way the Department of Defense conducts its business. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates clearly sees the handwriting on the wall. In a series of early-May speeches during what Washington analysts dubbed “Austerity Week,” he and other Pentagon officials began warning the military that the military’s carefree spending days were over. As Secretary Gates put it in a May 8th speech at the Eisenhower Presidential Library (a venue clearly chosen to bring to mind the president who first warned Americans of the “military-industrial complex”): “The attacks of September 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade… The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.”

Earlier in the week, in remarks at the Navy League’s annual convention, Gates also spoke of the need for a more austere Pentagon budget (though his is clearly a vision of holding the line in tough times at that budget’s present inflated size). He warned, among other things, that major weapons systems would be subjected to better scrutiny to ensure that they worked, met actual mission requirements, and did so at a reasonable price. This was hardly surprising, given that virtually every major weapons program currently under development or in production — including the Navy’s centerpiece for the next three decades, the Littoral Combat Ship, and the Air Force’s $325 billon Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the largest Pentagon weapons program ever — is significantly over budget and behind schedule.

A March 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that total acquisition costs for the Pentagon’s 96 major weapons programs had grown by 25% over their lifetime. In addition, 42% of them had experienced cost growth of more than 25%. The GAO also found that such programs were increasingly behind schedule delivering weapons that were ready for use in combat. On average, the program delay for a major weapons system was 22 months in 2008, up from 18 months in 2003.

In making the case that constrained Pentagon budgets wouldn’t mean an erosion of U.S. military dominance to a roomful of the Navy’s staunchest supporters, Gates offered some startling figures about the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps “overmatch” on the battlefield (the extent to which our military forces and capabilities exceed those of other nations). It gives a vivid sense of what massive military overspending has meant in practice.

Here are some of the facts Gates offered, quoted directly from his remarks:

  • The U.S. operates 11 large [aircraft] carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
  • The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to our allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
  • The U.S. has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines — again, more than the rest of the world combined.
  • Seventy-nine Aegis-equipped combatants carry roughly 8,000 vertical-launch missile cells. In terms of total missile firepower, the U.S. arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
  • All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet — a proxy for overall fleet capabilities — exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
  • And, at 202,000 strong, the Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind in the world and exceeds the size of most world armies.

Weapons Systems That Regularly Break the Bank

And keep in mind, that’s just the Navy. A similar set of overmatch facts could be gathered for the Army and Air Force or for cumulative military spending. The level of “overmatch” becomes even more obvious when you consider U.S. military spending compared to that of the rest of the world. According to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States accounts for 42% of total global military spending, more than exceeding the combined spending of the next 15 most powerful countries. The United States and its allies now account for two-thirds of total world military expenditures.

Gates pointed an accusing finger at Congress, noting its unwillingness to go along with relatively modest proposed cuts he suggested for certain weapons systems, including the giant C-17 transport aircraft and the alternative engine program for the Joint Strike Fighter. (The JSF uses an engine made by Pratt & Whitney, but some in Congress are pushing the Pentagon to purchase a similar engine manufactured by General Electric as well, claiming that having two engine sources will create competition and save money in the long run.)

Gates also highlighted Congress’s reluctance to support the Pentagon’s efforts to implement modest increases in healthcare premiums and co-payments for military retirees. The proposed increases are intended to help control the military’s staggering healthcare costs, but as Gates pointed out, “The[se] proposals routinely die an ignominious death on Capitol Hill.”

Initial Congressional feedback on Gates’s new initiatives has been decidedly negative. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee, has indicated that he will support additional C-17 production and the JSF engine program, despite a Gates pledge to recommend that President Obama veto any defense legislation backing these programs.

On the House side, two subcommittees of the Armed Services committee have each endorsed the JSF engine program. And the Military Personnel subcommittee is recommending a 1.9% pay raise for all service members, half a percent higher than requested by the administration — even though Gates has raised particular concerns about personnel costs, saying that the Pentagon’s $50 billion healthcare costs “are eating the Defense Department alive.”

The C-17 program has, in fact, become the latest poster child for Pentagon pork barrel politics. The Air Force had originally planned to end the program in 2007 at 180 aircraft — the Pentagon’s request for fiscal year 2007 included $2.9 billion for what it considered the final 12 aircraft in the program. Since then, Congressional supporters of the C-17, which is manufactured by Boeing, have funded 43 additional aircraft over the Pentagon’s objections, to the tune of more than $10 billion.

On Capitol Hill, the forces arrayed against fiscal restraint within the Pentagon budget are daunting, even for a defense secretary with the kind of clout Robert Gates has and who only wants to reallocate defense dollars to more immediate war-fighting needs. Other defense secretaries trying to do similar things in the past have had uniformly grim experiences.

In the early 1990s, for example, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was pushing to terminate a number of weapons programs, including the Marine Corps’ V-22 “Osprey” tilt-rotor aircraft. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1992, Cheney said, “Congress has let me cancel a few programs, but you’ve squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don’t fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements… You’ve directed me to buy the V-22, a program I don’t need.”

Make no mistake, Gates has no intention of contributing Pentagon dollars to reducing the debt. His efforts are merely an acknowledgement of our nation’s weak economy, and the fact that fewer dollars will be available for any government program, even favored military ones. This type of Pentagon re-budgeting has been likened to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It reflects a shifting around of priorities within the Defense Department that don’t come close to addressing the true issues facing the country, especially a bloated defense budget that is no longer sustainable and places a growing burden on other federal programs.

The mere fact that even Defense Department officials are beginning to discuss fewer dollars for the Pentagon, however, offers an opportunity for Americans intent on reining in rampant military spending. It is a chance that has been a long time coming, is finally on the national agenda, and, if missed, might be an even longer time in coming again.

Christopher Hellman is communications liaison at the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was previously a military policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Defense Information, and spent ten years on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer working on national security and foreign policy issues. He is a frequent media commentator on military planning, policy, and budgetary issues.

Copyright 2010 Christopher Hellman

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