Defense spending is fast becoming a point of contention within the GOP ranks.
The prospect of deep cuts in defense is troubling to many in the party, which has traditionally supported robust defense spending. But increasingly, that impulse is giving way to arguments from GOP lawmakers, many of them new to Congress, who say the most important goal is to rein in federal deficits. They believe that steep, across-the-board spending cuts due to hit on March 1, while an imperfect tool, are the only way to accomplish their goal.
There are a few essential points that Republicans should agree upon, whatever their larger worldview on national security may be. But even the most dogged hawks should recognize that the military will have to do with less in the immediate future.
As a factual matter, defense is the one area in which cuts have taken place. Before we got to the sequester, former defense secretary Robert Gates produced two trenches of spending cuts. The money was not used to pay down the debt, which has grown in every year of the Obama administration, but to pay for skyrocketing domestic spending.
In FY 2013 defense spending declined in actual dollar amounts for the first time in more than a decade. Defense, which is less than 19 percent of the budget, is disproportionately affected by the sequester, 50 percent of which is applied to defense. However, for purposes of the sequester, the term “revised security category” is used, which some interpret to include portions of State Department and Homeland Security spending. (The House Armed Services committee disputes that interpretation.)
We should distinguish between the long-term implications of the sequester and the immediate parade of horribles that the Defense Department, like all other government departments, is predicting in the short run. The long-term implications of funding defense at sequester levels is grim, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. We will not be funding defense commensurate with the national security objectives we have set out.
That is different, however, than the current, immediate implications of the sequester. The Defense Department has acted with the same irresponsibility that other government functions have displayed — choosing the most visible and dramatic reductions. Byron York reports:
Over many decades of defense budget battles, the Pentagon has often used a tactic known as a “gold watch.” It means to answer a budget cut proposal by selecting for elimination a program so important and valued — a gold watch — that Pentagon chiefs know political leaders will restore funding rather than go through with the cut.
So now, with sequestration approaching, the Pentagon has announced that the possibility of budget cuts has forced the Navy to delay deployment of the carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf. With tensions with Iran as high as they’ve ever been, that would leave the U.S. with just one carrier, instead of the preferred two, in that deeply troubled region.
Meanwhile, we have yet to complete a comprehensive audit of defense or reformed the much-criticized defense procurement system.
Defense experts including Michele Flournoy have set forth some alternative means for reducing costs that would in the short term take much if the sting out of sequester cuts:
First, eliminate unnecessary overhead in the Pentagon, defense agencies and headquarters staffs. Since 2001, these have grown like weeds. Over the past decade, the number of DOD civilians increased by more than 100,000, to roughly 778,000 in 2010, while the number of contractors also ballooned. . . .
Second, take steps to reduce the costs of military health care without sacrificing quality of care. The current trajectory of the Pentagon’s health-care spending is unsustainable. . . .
Third, cut excess infrastructure. Since the last Base Realignment and Closure Commission in the late 1990s, Congress has prevented the Defense Department from closing bases it no longer needs or consolidating infrastructure to better support evolving missions. This inability to shed or realign facilities hangs like an albatross around the department’s neck, consuming billions of dollars that could otherwise go to readiness and modernization.
Finally, reform acquisition. While the current administration has made some important progress (the “Better Buying Power” initiative to promote greater efficiency and productivity), far more needs to be done.
What, then, would be a sane and responsible approach to defense spending?
In the continuing resolution that will take us from the end of March through the end of the fiscal year, Congress should give the Defense Department direction to seek sequester reductions not in across-the-board cuts but from the areas described above and to report back on whether additional savings in those areas are possible. Whatever savings can be obtained from smart cutting in the manner Flournoy describes should be allocated toward meeting our actual national security objectives as spelled out in the Quadrennial Defense Review. And finally, we will need a defense secretary who will be “running things” and has the brains and leadership skills, as well as the respect of the military and Congress, to carry out a set of daunting tasks and project absolute resolve in the face of varied threats.
The short-term scare tactics are unbecoming of our military and unhelpful to the long-term cause of getting the most for our defense dollars. In the CR, Congress can begin to address the latter. And the Senate can put a stop to the preposterous Chuck Hagel nomination, which is as much a threat to national security as the across-the-board sequester cuts. Put differently, we should give a scalpel to a trained surgeon rather than give a sledgehammer to a toddler.