Don't give up on spending discipline at the Pentagon

The details of the Pentagon’s new budget have just been released. The outline provided by Secretary of Defense Hagel last week already sends a mixed message about how his department plans to deal with an era of diminished resources and changing threats.

To its credit, the Department of Defense’s new proposal adheres to the budget caps set out in current law.  But even as the Obama administration appears to be facing budgetary reality, efforts to evade genuine budget discipline are well under way.  The process began last year, when the administration submitted a war budget that was higher than what was needed to address the needs of a rapidly downsizing force in Afghanistan.  Congress compounded the problem by adding billions more to the administration’s request.

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This year’s budget gimmick is the administration’s “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative,” a proposal that would institutionalize the old bad habit of letting the heads of the military services submit yearly wish lists that go beyond what is in the formal budget submission.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put an end to these requests, which used to be called “unfunded requirements.”  But they are back with a vengeance.

Even as the administration is seeking creative ways to get around the FY 2015 budget caps, it is proposing to eliminate them outright for the longer-run by proposing a five year plan that is $115 billion more than what is currently authorized.

It would be one thing if more funding was needed to provide an effective defense for the United States and its allies.  But that is not the case.  A balanced approach that looks at reducing personnel, cutting waste and overhead, and eliminating unnecessary weapons programs could easily fit under existing budget caps. 

Critics like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) who assert that President Obama’s budget proposal has somehow emboldened Vladimir Putin to intervene in the Ukraine ignore the fact that there is no military solution to that problem.  Whether the Pentagon budget is $500 billion per year or $1 trillion per year, military intervention in the Ukraine is not in U.S. interests.  Given that reality, the recent reductions in Pentagon spending – which are modest by historical standards – will not change the calculations of Vladimir Putin or any other world leader.  In fact, we should be seeking reductions that go beyond the Obama plan.

Hagel is right to say that the U.S. military should no longer plan for involvement in “prolonged stability operations” like Iraq and Afghanistan, but his department’s budget doesn’t fully act upon the implications of that change.  Rather than bringing the U.S. Army down to 440,000 to 450,000 as his announcement suggested, he should aim for 420,000 or less.

The Pentagon should also stop clinging to Cold War weapons systems, like the nuclear triad of bombers, and land- and sea-based ballistic missiles.  A study by the Monterey Institute estimates that modernizing and maintaining the triad could cost $1 trillion over the next three decades.  That’s right up there with the F-35 combat aircraft, the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon, at $1.5 trillion to buy and operate over its lifetime.  The F-35’s missions are either increasingly irrelevant, like the ability to engage in aerial dogfights, or can be done more cheaply by other systems, from A-10s to upgraded F-16s and F-18s.  At a minimum the program should be dramatically scaled back, at a savings of tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.

If it is truly seeking to rein in the excesses of Pentagon spending the administration should stick to the caps established in current law for FY 2015 without using gimmicks like its "opportunity fund."  And it should bring its proposal for FY 2016 and beyond back within the caps called for in 2011’s Budget Control Act.  That would still leave the Pentagon budget hovering around $500 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, more than enough to deal with any likely threat.  In fact, an argument can be made that going even lower would make it easier to construct a more agile, flexible force better suited to upcoming challenges.  Overspending on the Pentagon at the expense of other foreign policy tools will hamstring efforts to address the most urgent threats to the security of the United States and the world.

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.