Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
As we look ahead to the many fiscal milestones Congress will face in the coming months, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about the largest portion of our discretionary budget: defense. At more than $600 billion annually, national security takes up more than half of U.S. discretionary spending and outstrips the cost of all entitlement programs save Social Security. So as we think about how to reduce future deficits and make responsible decisions about reducing wasteful spending throughout government, the defense budget is a great place to start.
Everyone across the political spectrum believes there is a legitimate role for the federal government in national security and defense: There is almost no other issue where such wide consensus exists. Ironically, this consensus has resulted in our national security budget being among the most bloated and unaccountable. In a recent report by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, he called the Department of Defense the "Department of Everything" and identified $68 billion in nondefense spending in the Pentagon budget. At Taxpayers for Common Sense, we worked with the Project on Government Oversight to show how to cut almost $700 billion in unnecessary defense spending over 10 years in our report "Spending Even Less, Spending Even Smarter." Cutting the defense budget absolutely can be done. In fact, it must be done.
Here are some points to keep in mind as we continue down the path toward a more efficient and effective national security budget.
- Forget the idea that more Pentagon spending will automatically make us safer. National security luminaries such as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, and George Schultz have said we can reduce defense spending without compromising national security, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen has repeatedly said that our national debt is the greatest threat to our national security.
- Start by going after waste and duplication. More isn't always better, and we shouldn't buy more weapons or systems than we need or can afford. We can save $18 billion dollars by reducing orders for aircraft carriers and navy wings by one each and another $18 billion by reducing the order for next-generation nuclear submarines by four while still maintaining a robust deterrent.
- Don't build hammers in search of nails. As a general rule, if we build a large federal facility, we'll find a use for it. So we need to think carefully about moving forward with projects where the intended use is already in question. For example, we could save almost $5 billion by halting construction on the mixed oxide fuel facility, a project to develop a product no one currently wants. Similarly, we could save more than $3 billion by permanently cancelling the expansion of the chemistry and metallurgy research replacement facility in New Mexico.
- Don't throw good money after bad. This saying is an oldie but a goodie. We need to admit when projects or weapons systems don't deliver and stop spending money on them. Two costly examples include the unreliable V-22 Osprey aircraft (savings from replacing new ones with helicopters: $17 billion) and the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, an element of the national missile defense program (savings from freezing program: $6 billion).
- Don't hide behind the jobs argument. Reducing federal spending in any area may have an effect on employment, and it is perfectly reasonable to factor those effects into our decisions. But the job creation claims of highly profitable defense contractors tend to turn small-government conservatives into military Keynesians and peace-loving progressives into defenders of the military-industrial complex.
In the end, if we want to reduce spending to stabilize our debt and reduce our deficits, we need to follow the advice of the bank robber Willie Sutton and go where the money is. And in the federal government, that includes the defense budget.
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