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Defense Spending Cuts for a New Congress? Not So Fast

4 years ago
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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.
U.S. Navy planeIt 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 from 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.''

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The U.S. spends more on defense then the next 26 countries combined. 25 of them are allies. The U.S. if it signs on to the new Start will still have 5000 Warheads and somewhere in the U.S. somebody is in a panic. The logic being if you can't deter a country from agression with 5k warheads it's the 5001 that probably would have done the trick. Then there is the ever present "don't close the base in my country or my state" or " that extra engine for the fighter we will never use creates jobs in my district and those contractors make big fat contributions." Want to know what will be cut? Pick a group with a small voter block, the most need and then stick it to them. How about education after all kids are small and don't vote yet. Maybe seniors you know the ones that believe everything the see on TV? The GOP has already made it clear they are willing to help 10,000,000 formerly middle class Americans to povety. ( Nothing like finishing off the group they helped create aye?) Congress will do the usual cowardly thing, the GOP will play Grinch and the sheepish dems will ( wink wink nod nod) sort of give in to the plan they wanted all along but couldn't say so.

November 22 2010 at 1:23 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

OK lets start with tax cuts to Big Oil, Tax cuts to the Rich, Tax Cuts to Farms, Cut all earmarks, Change Social Security to not pay to the Rich or at least people over a Million in income Change Medicare Medicade same way Close bases in Japan, Germany, South Korea they can defend themselves Cut the pay,pension,Health Care of Congress, Senate most are Millionairs twice over Good start

November 22 2010 at 12:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

737 Military Bases around the Planet,,,while are major cities are looking like 3 rd. world countries.

November 08 2010 at 8:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I say let the tax breaks expire for everyone and use the money to pay for the wars in Afganistan and Iraq.Maybe if all Americans had some skin in the game more would pay attention to the waste in military spending.I'm tired of hearing how we we have to protect our foreign interest that are the corporations that have moved their operations overseas and outsourced our jobs while setting up tax shelters in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes to the U.S also reinstate the draft and eliminate paying private security companies 5 times what we pay our soldiers.

November 08 2010 at 8:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The pentagon does not want to discouse the role of the U.S and military in this changing world,the military want to keep the American people gessing and it is costing the military alot of money.If the pentagon continues to keep the American people woundering the military will never be able to control defense spending.

November 08 2010 at 1:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Good article. I have deployed 3 times, and many have deployed more than me. There are places to cut waste (i.e. contractors), but we should remember that over the last several years we have taken a force that is over 30% smaller than what we had in 1990 and fulfilled all DOD requirements in addition to the conduct of two wars. Never before have we sent the same people to combat for this length of time. Thoughtful debate is needed, scrutiny should accompany our policies and expenditures, but increasing the burden by further shrinking the fighting force should not be an option as cuts are considered. MAJ Steve Douglas, Student, Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

November 07 2010 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

Nobody read the healthcare bill and nobody reads the Defense bill and everyone knows THAT is the place where they stick other bills that can't go through elsewhere, because no one reads it. If you look in the last one you'll find $90 million for a museum for a dead senator.

November 07 2010 at 10:04 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

We outspend the rest of the world combined on defense spending. Are we preparing to fight everyone alone? Germany, Japan and other Western European countries need to step up to the plate on defense spending. It would also be great if Canada and all of it's oil revenue took a more significant role in defending freedome. Stopping the funding of Isreal's occupation of the West Bank, remember we are broke!

November 07 2010 at 9:57 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

I am all for cutting out any portion of the defense budget that goes for waste, fraud, or abuse. That goes for all other Federal functions. Who has the political courage to do it?

November 07 2010 at 8:33 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to oldengineera2's comment

Probably none of the above. There are very few fiscal conservatives. Especially if it means they don't get a new round of tax cuts.

November 07 2010 at 9:28 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Mr. Phelps

Its time to cut the defense budget it now represents 56 cents of every dollar of the Federal Budget. The 2011 budget for defense & defense related expenditures is between 1.003–$1.223 trillion. They would like to have you believe its a much smaller amount but when you figure in pensions, VA, housing, NASA, bloats up quickly. It is not sustainable w/o raising revenues or cutting from other spending health care, social security, education, medicade & medicare. The defense budget has gone up 5 per cent per year since 2006. I would also remind you of the waste, fraud and malfeasence which is present and some people in both the military & congress haven't never met a weapons systems they didn't like. How many more air craft carriers & submarines shall we build?

November 07 2010 at 8:19 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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