Let's Wise Up About Defense Spending

Spending more will not necessarily make us safer, but spending smarter will make us stronger.

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The House Armed Services Committee is voting on the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act this week and will turn it over to the full House of Representatives next week. Shortly thereafter, the bill that actually gives the Department of Defense the cash to spend will be on the floor. At this time, it is worth taking a moment to consider the role our national defense and defense spending play in our current fiscal predicament.

Politicians and ordinary Americans across the political spectrum agree on the need for the federal government to provide for our common national security. But that consensus has allowed for defense and security spending to grow at an unsustainable rate. And since the defense budget accounts for more than half of the discretionary budget, it is simply no longer credible to call for reducing spending without including defense cuts.

The good news is that the combination of budgetary pressures created by the sequester and the ramp down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has opened up space for a new conversation on defense spending priorities. In a recent speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged the need for resources to inform strategy – a principle which seems obvious but that has been overlooked for too long.

Just this week, a group of politically diverse think tank leaders sent a joint letter suggesting a series of Pentagon reforms, including modernization of the military compensation system and closing excess bases and facilities. And of course, we at Taxpayers for Common Sense have been providing lots of suggestions for ways to decrease defense spending while increasing national security for as long as we have been in existence. Simply put, spending more will not necessarily make us safer, but spending smarter will make us stronger.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

It is up to the administration and Congress to lead the way on making sure every dollar spent on national security is spent wisely, but at best we've seen mixed signals from the early releases of the information about the draft bill Congress will be considering in the next two weeks. Here's a quick guide for issues to watch to get a sense of whether we're at the beginning of a new era of prioritization and accountability in our national security policy or whether politics as usual will win the day once again.

  • Are we cutting our losses on troubled projects or throwing good money after bad? We were pleased when the administration proposed cutting spending on the MOX program, a floundering nuclear fuel reprocessing program in South Carolina, so it was worrisome when we saw an effort by Congress to study alternatives to expand the program as a way of addressing its cost overruns. Congress also has the opportunity to scale back the Littoral Combat Ship program and end the lunacy of developing two different ship platforms to perform the same mission. (A mission that is questionable in the first place.) Even better, make sure we “fly before we buy” with the expensive and troubled F-35 joint strike fighter program.
    • Are we realizing sufficient savings from the ramp downs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? The current draft bill adds $5 billion over the president's request to the Overseas Contingency Operations account, an area that would logically stabilize or shrink as we withdraw our troops out of active engagement in Afghanistan. Proponents of this plus-up suggest we need the extra cash to ensure readiness; skeptics are concerned that increasing the account just creates another slush fund for the Pentagon. Furthermore, savings from ramping down the war should simply be realized, not scored as additional deficit reduction or offsets for other spending.
      • Is there a serious effort to tackle contracting and acquisitions reform? The Department of Defense spends hundreds of billions on service contracts. Contracting practices need to be tightened and accountability measures put in place. We'll likely hear debate about executive compensation centering around how much a defense executive can earn and still have the government reimburse them (a proposal to limit reimbursement to the more than $400,000 the U.S. president earns is likely to fail), but the bigger questions are whether we are getting our money's worth for the services and weapons we are purchasing.
        • How will we go about addressing excess facilities? The current draft bill specifically prohibits starting a Base Realignment and Closure process on the grounds that the process itself costs money, which is true in the short term. But if not BRAC, how will Congress and the administration go about reducing spending on facilities we no longer need?
          • Are our allies paying their fair share? The cost of modernizing the B-61 bomb (a nuclear weapon kept in Europe) is likely to exceed $10 billion. At the very least, our NATO allies should pick up part of the tab since the B-61 bombs are there to help with European defense.
            • Can we stop stupidity before it strikes? In the last year, there's been an increasing interest to developing an east coast missile defense site, purportedly to stop a strike from Iran. Considering the existing systems are troubled and haven't worked well in tests, there are more effective alternatives, and we are a nation $16.5 trillion in debt. There are far higher priorities than spending millions of dollars determining an east coast site for missile defense.
            • [See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

              The National Defense Authorization Act debate is an important opportunity for Congress and the Administration to articulate priorities and policies before the appropriations committees commit funds. It's a bad sign that Congress ignored the spending caps set by the Budget Control Act and actually increased defense spending, but there is still the opportunity for cooler heads to prevail. We need our national security spending decisions to be made based on evidence, not influence.

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