Trump's nonsensical defense budget just adds to government waste
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The Trump administration isn’t scheduled to release its detailed budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 until next week, but the debate over how much money to give the Pentagon is already well under way.

According to advance information supplied to Bloomberg News by administration officials, the proposed $54 billion increase for the Pentagon will include just one additional ship and no additional combat aircraft over the Obama administration’s proposal for the same time period. This news prompted one analyst to describe Trump’s proposal as a “paper budget.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

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It’s true, as Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has noted, that Trump’s proposed Pentagon spending blueprint is not one of the biggest increases in recent memory, but it is substantial nonetheless. The $54 billion is comparable to the entire military budget of France and larger than those of the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan.

 

It’s important to remember that the proposed Pentagon increase comes at a time when the department’s budget is already at historically high levels, higher than the peak level of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, even after adjusting for inflation. Current spending levels are greater than the next eight nations in the world combined, six of which are U.S. allies.

What is all this money being spent on?

For one thing, there are considerable amounts of waste in the current budget. A study by the Defense Business Board, which the Pentagon tried to bury, estimated that the Pentagon could save $125 billion over the next five years just by eliminating bureaucratic overhead. 

The Department of Defense employs roughly one million civilians, or nearly one bureaucrat for every member of the active duty military. While many of these civilians do essential work, there is still considerable room for reductions. This is especially true when one considers that the department employs at least 600,000 private contractors, many of them carrying out tasks that duplicate work done by government employees.

Another source of unneeded spending, acknowledged by the Pentagon, is excess infrastructure, mostly in the form of military bases that no longer serve any strategic purpose. The Pentagon estimates that it has 22-percent more infrastructure than it needs, and would gladly shed it if it were not blocked from doing so by members of Congress who want to protect their home state facilities. 

Congressional leaders, like House Armed Services Committee chair Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.), who have argued that the Pentagon needs more money for training and maintenance, should aggressively press their colleagues to allow another round of base closings to move forward. Past rounds of closures have saved billions of dollars.

The current Pentagon budget also includes spending on weapons we don’t need at prices we can’t afford. As the Project on Government Oversight has noted, the F-35 may never be ready for combat and is being rushed into production before basic performance issues have been solved. 

This approach will lead to costly retrofits down the road to fix problems that weren’t caught during initial production. Instead of adding F-35s to the budget, as Congress has done in recent years, the program should be scaled back.

Another questionable procurement program is the Pentagon’s plan to spend $1 trillion on a new generation of nuclear warheads and nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and land-based missiles over the next three decades. The Pentagon already has far more nuclear weapons than it needs to deter another country from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon.

Finally, as former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress has pointed out, the U.S. military is "not facing a readiness crisis and the current level of spending on readiness and procurement is more than adequate." Large infusions of cash based on the need for more readiness funding are not justified.

One area of spending that will definitely go up if the Trump budget goes through is a significant increase in troops, but the administration has yet to give a persuasive argument for this move.

Even if it increases troops in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, as it seems primed to do, these changes will pale in comparison to the more than 160,000 troops that were deployed in Iraq at the height of the Bush administration’s intervention there, or the roughly 100,000 troops that were in Afghanistan during the Obama administration’s “surge.”

The hard, cold truth is that large, boots-on-the-ground, nation-building efforts like those undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan have not worked, and in some ways have made bad situations worse. They should not be part of U.S. strategy going forward.

Furthermore, more troops are not needed to deal with potential adversaries like Russia or China. It would be the height of recklessness to engage in a ground war with either of these nuclear-armed nations, and any moves to bulk up the U.S. presence in Europe can be accommodated within current force levels.

Unfortunately, key players like Thornberry and McCain want to increase Pentagon spending by tens of billions of dollars beyond the ill-considered increase being proposed by the Trump administration. Instead of throwing more money at the Pentagon, Congress should carefully scrutinize its budget to eliminate waste and cut back on unnecessary expenditures.

 

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


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.