As Congress continues its consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2019, there is one question that is not being asked: Do we really need $716 billion to defend the United States?
That’s the figure that came out of the budget deal that was concluded earlier this year. This would cover the Pentagon’s regular budget; the war budget — known formally as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account — and nuclear weapons activities at the Department of Energy.
But just because they signed a deal that allows them to authorize and appropriate $716 billion for defense doesn’t mean Congress has to do it. They most likely will, for reasons good and ill. But there should at least be a debate about the appropriate level and distribution of defense expenditures, for the good of the country and our future security. Too often the availability of ample funds leads to sloppy decision-making and a failure to set priorities. We can’t let that happen.
There are a number of clues that suggest that the $716 billion number is an arbitrary figure, determined as much by pork barrel politics and institutional inertia as by any objective assessment of defense needs.
A recent report by my organization, the Center for International Policy, found that Congress had inserted scores of additional weapons systems in the 2018 budget beyond what the Pentagon even asked for, and the current House version of the defense authorization bill for 2019 does more of the same. So, while screaming from the rooftops about the need for more readiness funding, Congress has instead decided to buy more M-1 tanks, more F-35 combat aircraft, more Apache helicopters, more KC-46 aerial refueling tankers, more Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), an extra aircraft carrier, and much, much more.
Accelerating production of items like the F-35, which analyses by the Project on Government Oversight suggest may never be fully ready for combat, is a recipe for waste, not for a stronger defense. The same can be said for troubled, overpriced systems like the LCS, the new aircraft carrier, and the KC-46. So, what’s the rush? More contracts, and more jobs, in the states and districts of key members of Congress are at stake, and these considerations are overriding sound management and sensible strategy.
There are many other examples of wasteful and misguided spending that Congress should be addressing before signing off on one of the highest Pentagon budgets since World War II. A recent report from the Institute for Spending Reform, “Guide for a Strong America,” documents dozens of them including:
- improving how the Pentagon disposes of excess property ($1 million in potential savings)
- reducing the number of domestic and foreign military bases ($1 billion in potential savings)
- canceling the Littoral Combat Ship ($1 billion-plus in savings)
- deferring development of the new nuclear bomber for a decade ($27 billion in savings)
The guide is not a brief for higher or lower spending levels at the Pentagon — it is an effort to highlight tradeoffs and identify unnecessary spending. But a thorough look at the options it presents suggests that the proposed $716 billion figure for next year is far from sacrosanct.
How do we know if we’re getting our money’s worth for defense? A recent report from the Stimson Center brings that question to the fore. The Center’s task force, which included former Pentagon comptrollers, a former Congressional Research Service expert on war spending, and experts from think tanks from across the political spectrum, estimated that the United States has spent roughly $2.8 trillion on counter-terrorism efforts in this century.
But equally important, the report found that the Pentagon has done a poor job of tracking what is and is not being spent for counter-terror purposes, making it virtually impossible to decide if the trillions exerted in these efforts have been effective, much less come to a precise figure for total spending.
At a minimum, we need more careful tracking and far greater transparency if Congress and the public are to have any hope of figuring out if we’re getting our money’s worth for these huge expenditures on counter-terrorism initiatives. And we need that effort to start now, before additional billions of dollars disappear into the ether with no clear paper trail as to how they have been used.
In short, there’s nothing magical about spending $716 billion on the Pentagon and related agencies. Congress should take a careful look at every item in this massive proposed budget in search of savings, better business practices, and a better alignment of weapons purchases with a sound strategy for defending the country. To do otherwise would be to abdicate their responsibility to the citizens they have been elected to serve.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.