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Disciplining defense while supporting troops

As it has been for the last decade, the defense budget continues to be sacred on Capitol Hill.  Congress routinely genuflects at the idea that votes for historically high levels of defense spending are the same thing as supporting the troops in the field.   They are not the same.  Indeed, we neither should nor can afford to treat them as such.  In an era of yawning deficits and debt, it is time for defense to be subjected to the same scrutiny and discipline as the rest of the federal budget. 

Our national tab for defense has doubled during the past decade and, at more than $700 billion, is at levels unprecedented since World War II.  Yet the Senate Budget Committee buckled last week and accepted the Obama administration’s request to exempt the Pentagon from a budget freeze.  Apparently, the only place for fiscal discipline in the entire arena of discretionary spending was in the far smaller diplomacy and development budgets, which the committee cut by nearly 7 percent.

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There is no reason the defense budget should be excluded from our collective belt-tightening. In fact, the pending request contains so little discipline that a freeze could be imposed without any negative effect on our national security.

Step one would be to hold the Pentagon accountable for losing money in its own system. As the Defense Department noted in its own budget justification, it “is one of a very few cabinet-level agencies without a ‘clean’ financial audit opinion.”  If budgets are being frozen for agencies that can account for their money, the Pentagon ought to participate as well.  A freeze would help defense managers discover efficiencies they have not imposed for the past ten years. 

Congress should also thoroughly examine the war budget. The Obama administration has done better at focusing war budgets on genuine war costs. Nevertheless, the services continue to view operations and maintenance funds requested on war-related grounds ($117 billion next year) as a slush fund they can move at will between war and non-war accounts. More transparent, but equally egregious, is the $205 million in the war budget for an F-35 fighter jet, which will play no role in that combat. 

Congress could also question the non-military programs crammed into the Pentagon’s budget, which continue to grow both in number and scale.  Among these are development assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, training for foreign police forces, building defense ministries overseas, and budget support for foreign governments. These programs should be shifted to the appropriate civilian institutions in the course of subjecting them to greater fiscal discipline.

Most critically, planning and budgeting are about setting priorities and making tradeoffs. Unlike any other federal department, the Pentagon has escaped this requirement during the past decade. The recent Quadrennial Defense Review claims to place “the current conflicts at the top of our budgeting, policy, and program priorities.”  In reality, the report actually gives equal priority to every mission the Pentagon and the military want to undertake: current wars, future conventional deterrence and war-fighting, counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, stability operations, overseas presence, power projection, and homeland defense.  No mission is given lower priority. In fact, rather than change its mission planning, the Pentagon has added the new missions to the existing requirement of fighting two major wars at nearly the same time.  

Mission choices are critical.  If the key to success in Afghanistan is special operations, intelligence, and UAVs, these should be funded, not conventional force expansion.  If lighter equipment is the right vehicle for future conflicts, we should put a traditional next-generation vehicle program for the Army on the slow track.  If diplomacy is key to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, we should support our diplomats instead of cutting their funding, and we should put the unsuccessful missile defense program on the back burner.   

Taking these four steps would more than accommodate defense to a budget freeze with no sacrifice to our security. Some will object, arguing, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf have, that there is an inherent floor below which defense spending cannot fall.  Contrary to this assertion, defense spending must be just like any other spending.  Implying otherwise removes any role for policy judgment in the budget process, a concession that should not be made to any federal agency.

Supporting the troops does not absolve Congress and the administration from sound policy thinking and priority-setting.  Quite the opposite, we can easily support them while spending less on defense than we do today.  America now faces a looming deficit and growing debt, creating a perfect storm for economic crisis.  All elements of federal spending need to be wire-brushed to make sure they contribute to our well-being and do not waste resources. Defense spending should not and cannot be sacrosanct.  Instead, Congress and the administration must provide the one planning ingredient the military understands better than any other agency: discipline. 

Adams is a professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center.  Leatherman is a Research Associate at the Stimson Center and contributor to the blog “Budget Insight.”