Respected military historian and analyst Max Boot writes:
[I]sn’t there a lot of waste in the massive Pentagon budget? Surely it’s possible to eliminate needless spending while preserving essential weapons and capabilities. Possible, yes, but not likely. Because cutting the Pentagon budget is not an arid academic exercise. It is an intensely political process where fat often gets shielded while muscle gets cut. . . .
Faced with this unpalatable reality, we are faced with essentially two choices: either keeping the military budget as is and accepting some needless spending or cutting the military budget and getting rid of vital capabilities while preserving a lot of needless spending. I would opt for the former option, especially since military spending today, at less than 4 percent of GDP, is hardly unsustainable.
I dearly hope he is wrong. If he isn’t, most of the conservative belief in rationalizing government and creating a more limited but vibrant public sector is in large part unattainable. It cannot be that a reform agenda only applies to mandatory and discretionary domestic program.
The “nothing we can cut” mentality on the left leaves bloated, ineffective domestic programs in place. The “nothing we can cut in the Pentagon” mentality on the right has, as Boot, indirectly explains, resulted in massive across-the-board cuts rather than surgical cuts and reforms.
Part of the problem stems from the political polarization that occurs whenever attention focuses on defense spending. Anti-Pentagon pols (from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) to liberal Democrats like Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.)) are eager to slash away, while hawks resort to budgeting by rote (raise spending to 4 percent of GDP). To be frank, too many conservatives are in the thrall of generals and admirals, taking at face value their claim that there is nothing to be done about Pentagon waste. Instead, they should exercise some healthy skepticism just as they would when listening to officials from domestic departments and agencies.
In truth, the American people won’t support increased spending on new weapons or replacement of frayed material so long as they believe there is a lot of excess money sloshing around. Hawks make a mistake in ferociously opposing cuts but declining to look at reforms and surgical reductions.
I remain convinced that we can have robust defense while also eliminating excess and waste. What it will take, however, is some bipartisan effort. For example, why not pair some excellent pro-defense gurus from Brookings (e.g. Michael O’Hanlon) with those from the American Enterprise Institute to come up with solid recommendations on Pentagon reform? Maybe a Simpson-Bowles sort of commission focused solely on the Pentagon and co-chaired by former secretaries of defense (one from a GOP administration and one from a Democratic one) to go line by line and weapon system by weapon system to recommend a slate of reforms? Even if (maybe especially if) the result is budget neutral we will have ensured the taxpayers are getting value for their tax dollars and that our military men and women are not being robbed or deprived of the best equipment to pay for pork.
In sum, hawks should avoid fatalism and get to work trying to reorder spending priorities. It is the biggest favor they could possible do for our fighting men and women.