Pentagon can bear cuts, but Congress must fix entitlements

In the midst of Washington’s dueling narratives on sequestration, debating who proposed it, who approved it and what the consequences will be, nearly everyone agrees that the Pentagon is taking a grossly disproportionate hit relative to others.

While the $85 billion in cuts apportioned between defense and domestic spending this year —$1.2 trillion over a decade —trims spending by 9 percent in most government agencies, the Pentagon will see a 13 percent shortfall, with $500 billion disappearing beyond the $487 billion already slashed under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Some have downplayed sequestration, noting it’s just 2.2 percent of a $3.5 trillion annual federal budget. While true, that ignores the root cause of our fiscal nightmare — roughly 60 percent (and rising) of our mandatory spending is fueled by runaway entitlements, which are left untouched by sequestration. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE (R-Wis.) addressed the urgency of overhauling Medicare and Social Security in his budget released last week, a $4.6 trillion plan that would balance our books in 10 years without raising taxes.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2025 the entire federal budget will be consumed by interest on the debt and entitlement programs. Unless we fix that, we can’t afford any military — the one spending obligation the Constitution mandates.

But this doesn’t mean the military can’t do better with limited resources.

Like after every major war, drawdowns are painful, as troop levels plummet and funds for weapons platforms, operations, maintenance and training shrink. But sequestration is particularly mindless, leading us to the hollow-force military of the 1970s and leaving us vulnerable to rogue states like Iran, which overran our embassy and held staff as hostages for 444 days.

So what “smart cuts” can the military make to preserve national security without breaking the all-volunteer force?

Here are three ways:

Acquisition reform: Cost overruns and delays to major weapons systems have become the norm. Some estimates show roughly $100 billion wasted over two decades. Next-generation technological marvels take a decade to research and develop, and then to “save money” they are scrapped, delayed or scaled back when they struggle. The Army’s Future Combat Systems, Comanche reconnaissance and attack helicopter and Crusader mobile artillery were shelved despite billions of taxpayer dollars invested. So was the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a $14 billion program featuring a tank-like amphibious vehicle that could carry Marines and hydroplane over the water. More technical glitches and contracting fiascoes yielded just three cost-swollen Navy littoral combat ships over a decade. The Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fifth-generation fighter aircraft was whittled down to production levels of 187 from 750 initially planned, boosting the price tag to $150 million each. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, designed to produce more than 2,400 smaller, less expensive, stealth technology aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, Marines and close allies, is now a $400 billion project — up 50 percent from initial estimates. So what’s the lesson here? Sometimes less is more — gradual upgrades to simpler, current platforms will help defray costs, while avoiding the waste of canceled or greatly scaled back new programs.

DOD civilian workforce drawdown: While the troops deployed to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civilian workforce expanded to 800,000, filling critical jobs in administration, healthcare, security, maintenance, intelligence and logistics. As 200,000 ground troops are being cut under sequestration, though, there is no comparable drawdown of civilians due to complex federal employment regulations. Rather than issuing 22 work-day furloughs this year under current plans, DOD should use natural attrition and hiring freezes to pare down the number to pre-9/11 levels of about 650,000. Headquarters staffs have similarly outgrown our ability to pay for them, and should also be trimmed.

Improved healthcare management: As healthcare costs have skyrocketed nationally due to aging baby boomers, the military faces the same challenges with its retirees. DOD has already raised fees for its Tricare healthcare program and is restricting some benefits, though it must focus on reducing administrative costs as well. At the same time, DOD and Veterans Affairs must not lose focus on tens of thousands of wounded warriors severely injured in Afghanistan and Iraq, who require long-term care.

Despite all the “blamestorming” in Washington, the Pentagon can and should play a role as a better steward of taxpayer dollars. But it can only do so much — it needs White House and congressional leadership to restructure runaway entitlement programs, or the country will go broke and the military may have nothing left to protect.

Gordon is a retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009. He is currently a communications consultant to several Washington, D.C.-based think tanks.