As lawmakers work in the coming weeks to enact the annual National Defense Authorization Act, they should seize this opportunity to refocus America’s efforts abroad, reduce wasteful spending, reject proposals unrelated to national security, and restore their commitment to Congress’ constitutional foreign policy obligations.
Given the massive increases in federal spending and deficits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the years of unchecked defense spending growth must end. Acknowledging the national debt is our greatest long-term national security threat, all parts of the budget must be scrutinized. Continuing the status quo is a recipe for disaster — with erratic policymaking, squandered resources, and an unjust burden on the men and women of our armed services.
The problem isn’t a lack of funds. The problem is a failure to balance resources with priorities. Now is the time to chart a smarter course.
For nearly 20 years, our military has been consumed by the demands of fighting seemingly endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — in addition to numerous other commitments around the world. Leaders have talked repeatedly about the need to set and adhere to clear national security objectives, but change has been slow to manifest. Instead, more obligations have been added, with little thought to specific goals, national interest or prioritization of limited resources.
Over this time, the defense budget has increased to record levels — currently $738 billion annually — with questionable impact on our security overall. Despite the unprecedented spending, our nation is unprepared to meet the security challenges of the future. The readiness of many fighter squadrons has decreased and aircraft accidents remain high — in part due to the wear and tear of constant deployments. The Navy is also struggling with readiness issues, as more operational requirements are placed on fewer ships.
In this year’s defense authorization, lawmakers should refocus toward future challenges — including threats to sea lanes and our interests in Asia — and away from long, taxing ground wars in the Middle East. That means supporting force structure reforms across all branches, including those proposed by Marine Corps Commandant David Berger. Lawmakers should also oppose provisions that would restrict the ability of the Department of Defense to end missions that don’t advance our national security interests, including Afghanistan.
It’s also time to restore the balance of power between Congress and the executive branch in matters of war and peace. That should begin with repeal of outdated congressional authorizations for the use of military force, and ensure all conflicts are backed by new authorizations that are geographically specific and limited in scope.
Recognizing foreign policy decisions require a clear and transparent picture of the world, annual reporting on allied defense spending should be reinstated, the Future Years Defense Program should remain unclassified, and Congress should require the Defense Manpower Data Center to resume its reporting on topline U.S. troop levels around the world, which it recently suspended in several countries.
In an effort to reduce waste and ensure resources are available for genuine defense needs, lawmakers should reform — and eventually retire — use of the Overseas Contingency account, which has become a slush fund to hide spending increases. This year’s authorization should evaluate costly and unnecessary acquisitions, like purchasing new F-16s or F-18s until the F-35 becomes more reliable, and cancelling future acquisitions of the Littoral Combat Ship, which consistently has experienced issues with its effectiveness. And once again, it is time to approve a new round in the Base Realignment and Closure process. The Defense Department is an estimated 20 percent above necessary base capacity and has requested a new BRAC round in six of the last eight years.
Finally, lawmakers should reject non-germane policy, like attempts to add state bailouts and other coronavirus relief language that is more appropriately addressed in separate legislation. The focus of this defense authorization should remain on the security and national interests of the United States.
Our national security posture will suffer in the years ahead if Congress continues to allow obvious problems to fester. Without action, the American people, and American interests, will be more at risk. It’s time for lawmakers to work in a nonpartisan way to focus defense resources where they’re needed most, and to reject attempts to maintain the status quo in service of outdated thinking and narrow special interests.
Nate Anderson is the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.