So far in this presidential campaign, with a few exceptions, just about every major candidate for president has called for a larger military and more defense spending – especially in the Republican primary. With the increasing focus on terrorism and global instability in the national dialogue, we can expect to hear more of the same as the campaign heats up in 2016.
But let’s face facts: with a national debt soon to surpass $19 trillion and growing budget deficits, substantial new defense spending would only complicate efforts to put our nation on a more sustainable fiscal path. The next president unfortunately will be forced to deal with this harsh budgetary reality.
The United States is slated to spend more than $600 billion on defense this year. Yet no one believes we’re getting the best return on our defense investment.
An endless series of news stories and government reports details bloated spending and bureaucratic dysfunction that leads to lengthy delays and rampant cost overruns for major defense projects like the new F-35 fighter and Littoral Combat Ship.
Meanwhile, ever-growing personnel costs, notably for health care and retirement, place increasing pressure on the defense budget and take away resources from our warfighters for equipment and training.
It would be one thing if these problems simply affected the bottom line of the Pentagon. But in a military context, such failures have dangerous real-world consequences as the armed services succumb to a dynamic of declining readiness due to budgetary pressure from broken processes and systems.
Under this scenario, the weapons, training and equipment that troops in the field desperately need don’t arrive on schedule, placing lives at risk. Training exercises are cancelled and promising leaders of the future abandon military careers when they don’t see things improving.
Those are high costs that cannot be tallied in any ledger.
Strengthening the military is not simply a matter of demanding more taxpayer dollars for the Department of Defense. We don’t simply need more defense spending—we need smarter defense spending. And, if Republicans want to legitimately claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility, then they must lay out robust plans to tackle waste and inefficiency within the Pentagon- not just give lip service to the issue.
So the next question is, what would a viable military spending reform program look like? How can the next administration get more value from our defense dollars? To build a better Pentagon, candidates should demand more action on two key issues: spending accountability and acquisition reform.
On the matter of spending accountability, the candidates should pledge to perform a full audit of the Pentagon’s finances. Audits are required by law for all federal agencies, but no complete audit has ever been performed on the Defense Department. One Congressional review estimated that a comprehensive audit of defense spending would generate $25 billion in annual savings per year. But it will require presidential leadership and congressional support to make it a reality.
Fixing the broken acquisition process is equally critical. An overly complex procurement process, endless paperwork requirements and heavy regulatory burdens have led to the predictable result that only a small number of defense contractors are prepared to participate in the bidding process. Simplifying and repairing this process would encourage greater competition in defense contracting, which could reduce costs while speeding procurement of needed weapons and systems. While there has been some progress on these reforms over the past year, there is still much work to be done and the next administration is going to play a critical role in ensuring reform efforts continue.
Thus far, most Republican candidates have only vaguely discussed defense-spending reform. The exceptions are Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.) who have aggressively tackled the issue while in the Senate. Both Cruz and Paul are original co-sponsors of the Audit Pentagon Act of 2015, a bill which imposes real consequences for the DOD if it does not complete a full audit. In addition, both senators have highlighted and sought to end wasteful programs within the defense budget like the Pentagon’s algae fuel program.
All the candidates of both parties would be wise to articulate and embrace a comprehensive plan to eliminate waste and inefficiency within the DoD – not just talk about the topline budget number. A smarter approach to defense investment would help put America back on a more sustainable fiscal path while at the same time strengthening the military’s readiness. Given the discussions around national security in the 2016 race so far, this could help demonstrate that a candidate can be both fiscally responsible while at the same being pro-defense.
Caldwell is the vice president of political and legislative action of Concerned Veterans for America. A U.S Marine infantry veteran, he served in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division.