The Pentagon’s proposed $582 billion budget is more than enough to address current security challenges. But members of Congress who agreed to this spending level in last year’s budget deal are already crying out for more.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has suggested that additional funding be added to the war budget, formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO. His rationale is that adding a total of about $5 billion to boost the fight against ISIS and deploy additional weapons and personnel to Europe will bust the budget. But this spending, which amounts to less than one per cent of the total resources available to the Pentagon under the current proposal, is no reason to go beyond the spending levels set out in last year’s budget deal.
Supporters of more OCO funding will argue that one way or another increased spending on ISIS and European defense will blow a hole in the Pentagon’s base budget. Even if we acknowledge that the war budget is padded with unrelated expenditures, they argue, those funds are needed to fund essential programs that don’t fit under the current caps on regular Pentagon spending. But this argument assumes that all of the expenditures in the Pentagon’s current budget are essential for defending the country. That is not the case.
For starters, there are billions of dollars of investment slated for programs that aren’t ready for prime time, or may not be needed at all. For example, the F-35 combat aircraft – which at an estimated $1.4 trillion over its lifetime is the most expensive weapons program undertaken by the Pentagon – continues to be plagued by performance problems. A recent report by the Pentagon’s independent testing office noted that moving too quickly on the program would reduce the incentive for the plane’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, to “correct an already substantial list of deficiencies in performance, a list that will only lengthen as . . . testing continues.”
Another area where spending can be reduced is in the plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, with investments in a new bomber, a new land-based ballistic missile, a new ballistic missile submarine, and a new nuclear-armed cruise missile. In particular, spending money now on a new nuclear cruise missile is redundant and ill advised, as former secretary of Defense William Perry and other experts have pointed out.
Then there is the Pentagon’s shadow work force – the hundreds of thousands of private contractors hired by the department. Many of them do work that could be done by government employees more cheaply and efficiently, and some do tasks that aren’t necessary in the first place. Cutting here could save tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Finally, there is the sheer volume of waste, fraud and abuse that continues to plague Pentagon spending. For example, the most recent assessment by the Government Accountability Office suggests that the Pentagon may be sitting on nearly $1 billion in excess spare parts. Better buying practices could prevent this wasteful buying pattern from persisting into the future, saving billions in the process.
What is really needed is for Congress to give the Pentagon a financial incentive to get its books in order. The Department of Defense is the only major U.S. government agency that cannot pass an audit. Bills that would press it to do so have been put forward by members of Congress that range from Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Michael BurgessMichael BurgessObamaCare gets new lease on life Top Republican: The healthcare bill is dead Live coverage: House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (R-Texas) to Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPence pushes Manchin in home state to support Gorsuch Under pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support The Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee MORE (D-W.Va.), Ron WydenRon WydenThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Overnight Regulation: Senate moves to strike Obama-era internet privacy rules Overnight Tech: Senate votes to eliminate Obama internet privacy rules | FCC chief wants to stay out of 'political debate' on fake news | Wikileaks reveals new CIA docs MORE (D-Ore.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders will 'absolutely' work with Trump to lower prescription drug costs Sanders says he will introduce 'Medicare for all' bill Sunday shows preview: Aftermath of failed healthcare bill MORE (I-VT), Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley wants details on firm tied to controversial Trump dossier This week: GOP picks up the pieces after healthcare defeat GOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (R-Iowa) and Ted CruzTed CruzRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report How 'Big Pharma' stifles pharmaceutical innovation AIPAC must reach out to President Trump MORE (R-Texas). It’s time for their fellow members of Congress to get on board and support this essential step.
So, before we heed the calls for more spending in the war budget, we should take a close look at how the Pentagon is spending the funds it already has.
Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.