A bruising fight over defense spending looms on Capitol Hill, where newly arriving legislators, elected to slash government spending and the deficit, will confront the biggest budget mess in the federal government.
It'll be a wild melee, with Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates, a Republican, lashing the Pentagon bureaucracy to find its own deep cuts. He'll be pitted against some newly elected tea partiers determined to cut everywhere but defense, old-line congressional liberals and libertarians bent on scaling back U.S. military commitments abroad, and the surviving old dogs of both parties digging in with defense contractor lobbyists to protect corporate revenues and home-district jobs.
Even if the new Congress wasn't divided and stalemate-prone, making significant and smart reductions in defense spending would be difficult. So expect a lot of speechifying, hand-wringing and arm twisting in the months ahead. But when Congress gets done flailing away at the defense budget, things are likely to look pretty much as they do now.
It is "absolutely possible '' to make smart cuts in defense spending, insists Todd Harrison, senior budget analyst of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,
a Washington think tank. But it's "not likely,'' he adds.
"If you want to make smart decisions about spending defense dollars, those decisions have to be tied to a strategy, and for a deliberative body like Congress to do that, there has to be some consensus about what the strategy is. And I don't think we have that.''
Strategy aside, a few lonely voices are arguing against defense cuts and some like California Republican Howard "Buck'' McKeon, the likely next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, actually want to increase the budget and expand U.S. military missions abroad.
But no matter what politicians said on the campaign trail, the defense budget
is an almost irresistible target. Even adjusting for inflation, the $712 billion Pentagon spending plan for 2011 now before Congress is the largest since World War II, including the budgets that paid for the wars in Korea and Vietnam. And that's without counting the cost of current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given that amount of cash, "substantial cuts can be made without threatening our national security, without cutting essential funds for fighting terrorism, and without shirking our obligations as a nation to our brave troops,'' said a letter
from a mostly Democratic group, including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), to the deficit commission
. The blue-ribbon bipartisan study group was set up by President Obama to make recommendations next month on how to control federal spending and debt. It is expected to recommend reductions cuts in defense budgets.
Anyone with a red pencil can cut the defense budget. But what to cut? After World War II, Congress trimmed defense spending across the board with little regard to real needs or priorities. Result: five years later many American GIs were sent into combat in Korea without boots or workable weapons.
Many fault the Pentagon, and the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for failing to set out a clear strategy and a prioritized list of what needs to be done, at what cost. The Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review
, released earlier this year, was supposed to do just that. Instead, critics said, it merely came up with a list of missions the military should undertake, without setting priorities or explaining the risks of not doing them.
Here's what happens when Congress goes to work on the defense budget without knowing the strategy.
The Pentagon has its heart set on the new Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), currently projected to cost $247 billion for a fleet of 2,400 aircraft. The planes would be a great help for a war with China, say, or Russia. But for wars like Afghanistan, the airplane the JSF is supposed to replace, the venerable A-10 Warthog
, is actually performing better. It flies lower and slower, has a huge gun
and armor to protect the pilot. (On a recent day, A-10s working with Marines strafed and bombed insurgents near Shurakian, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.) Each JSF costs $131 million – nine times
the price of the A-10.
In the past, congressional budget cutters, gagging at that kind of money, have simply reduced the size of the purchase. Can't afford $247 billion? Just buy 1,200 Joint Strike Fighters instead of 2,400, and rather than buying them over the next five years, spread out the buy over 15 years, lowering each year's cash outlay (but sacrificing mass-production savings). That's what Congress did, and the JSF price soared from a 1991 estimate of $79 million each to $131 million each, while the projected buy sank 14 percent from the 2,866 planes it originally intended to purchase.
This also was the fate of the supersonic and stealthy F-22 fighter, designed to lead an attack on a high-tech enemy. You'd need a lot of them for a major war, and indeed, the Air Force said in 1991 it needed 648 of the fighters, which it said would cost $86 billion. But technical delays, cost growth and congressional cutbacks left the program in tatters. Now the Air Force will get only 188 of the airplanes -- about 70 percent fewer than it said it needed -- at a total cost of $69 billion, or a savings of only 20 percent. Like the B-2 bomber, the F-22 is so costly and valuable, and there are so few of them, it is not used in combat but in training.
That illustrates the alarming reality of today's defense spending: the costs have gone up wildly, even as the military's planes, tanks and ships are getting older and shoddier. There are fewer of them, and they're being used twice as hard. The Air Force has shrunk f
rom 4,200 fighters and attack aircraft in 1991 to 1,498 today. And like the A-10 and the upgraded, 1970s-era F-15s and F-16s, these "legacy'' jets are being over-used in Afghanistan, and becoming more and more expensive to maintain. Same thing with the Navy, which today is able to put to sea fewer combat ships than at any time since 1946.
Budget scourge Tom Coburn
, Republican senator from Oklahoma, took a hard look at defense spending earlier this year and came away staggered. "Despite the sacrifices, heroism and professionalism that our military personnel have shown in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's defenses have been decaying despite -- perhaps even because of – increasing budgets,'' he reported.
That's the first bit of bad news for newly anointed lawmakers who have breezily promised to cut government spending but not imperil troops on the battlefield. Trim the budget and they get fewer weapons.
A second piece of bad news is that the largest, and fastest growing part of the defense budget is for "the troops'' -- pay
, benefits like college tuition, tax-free bonuses, housing allowances and health insurance. Since 2001-- thanks to the generosity of Congress -- the Pentagon's personnel costs have gone up 46 percent (total manpower grew by 3.5 percent during that period). That doesn't include the uncontrolled costs of the military's health care ($50.7 billion a year) or its retirement system ($11 billion).
The military health insurance program is so good -- the basic premium for a family was set at $460 in 1995 and never changed -- that thousands of retirees with access to private insurance are using the military system instead. Average annual premium for private-sector workers: $3,500.
And which new member of Congress is going to tell combat troops and veterans: Sorry, we've cut your pay, and doubled your health insurance premium?
The final bit of bad news for anyone poking through the defense budget looking for easy cuts and the famous but elusive "inefficiencies'' will find, as Coburn did, is that the Pentagon's books are a shambles. Pentagon auditors don't know how much money has been spent or where the money has gone. They cannot find out precisely what has been spent on tanks, planes, submarines, bootlaces or .50-caliber machine gun rounds.
Last fall, the Defense Department Inspector General issued a depressing report
summing up the Pentagon's continuing failure to get its accounting straightened out. The situation is not new: the Pentagon IG has been unable to complete audits of the Pentagon books, because of missing or unreliable data, since 1991.
Congress last year got fed up and gave the Pentagon a deadline for cleaning up its books: Sept. 30, 2017.
Even so, Congress could make a start on defense spending cuts if it had a clear strategy as a guide.
"Right now, that would be a highly desirable thing -- what's the role of the United States in the world, and how is it changing, and what's the role of the military?'' said Gordon Adams, American University professor of foreign policy, who was the national security budget director for President Clinton.
"That is absolutely the right discussion to have, but we're not having it,'' he said. The debate that ensues on Capitol Hill, as the bruising fight over defense spending begins, "will take the form of 'You're weak on defense!' and 'You're a warmonger!''' said Adams.
"I fear the new Congress will waltz around this ideological flagpole for a couple of years without ever having a strategic discussion, and cuts will be made in a fairly blunt and uncoordinated manner.''