Congress Ducks the Tough Defense Spending Questions

The latest National Defense Authorization Act shows Congress doesn't have the stomach to cut defense spending.

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Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., are silhouetted by the setting sun as they walk across the Campbell Army Airfield.

Late last week, in a show of impressive bipartisan agreement, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, the law that outlines the Pentagon's priorities for the fiscal year (which started in October). The Senate followed the lead of the House Armed Services Committee, adopting the House's authorization numbers for the base budget, overseas operations and procurement.

Let's start with the basics about what this bill does and doesn't do. The NDAA does not actually spend money; it sets policy and suggests what Congress thinks the Pentagon should do. So while this year's NDAA authorizes $552 billion in base spending and $80 billion for overseas operations, we're hearing that in the wake of the recent budget deal, the allowable spending limits will be $494 billion and $85 billion.

So as a starting point, the NDAA just affirms the wide, bipartisan agreement (the vote passed the Senate 85-15) on spending more money than we have on the Pentagon.

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In the context of procurement programs – the buying of tools and weapons we "need" to keep our troops safe – the NDAA contains some slight recognition that we probably don't need to be spending at the same levels forever. After a few years of base budget funding of procurement on the north side of $110 billion, the requests have started to level off at about $100 billion. (This is compared to an appropriation of slightly less than $80 billion for procurement in fiscal year 2003 when we were actually fighting a war.)

But despite this recognition that weapons spending can't keep growing forever, the NDAA demonstrates the trouble with the way Congress sees our Pentagon spending priorities.

For instance, Congress authorized $6 billion for procurement of the F-35 fighter. In total, Congress authorized $98.4 billion for all Pentagon procurement in the base budget. So more than 6 percent of all procurement funds will be spent on one weapon system, far outpacing any other acquisition. With an additional $1.9 billion for research and development in fiscal year 2014 and $63.9 million requested for military construction the same year, the F-35 is well on its way to becoming the most expensive weapon system ever developed by the Pentagon. This is just plain wrongheaded thinking: in addition to being incredibly expensive, the F-35 is fraught with problems. We should just cancel the program.

The bill also authorizes $1.7 billion for an additional four Littoral Combat Ships, or LCS. The LCS, according to the Navy, is "designed for operation in near-shore environments yet capable of open-ocean operation." Designed to operate in two vastly different environments, it is doomed to do poorly at both.

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There's almost a billion dollars in this bill to begin procurement of the next Ford class aircraft carrier. But the CBO calculates that reducing the U.S. carrier fleet by one ship and also reducing the number of carrier airwings by one would save the Pentagon close to $2 billion over five years. Then there is $178 million in the bill for M-1 Abrams tanks that the Pentagon never asked for. 

Is there a way to make some tough choices and free up some funds to be spent on the procurement programs the Pentagon and Congress so love or even (gasp!) deficit reduction? Let's start with base closure, which the NDAA steered clear of altogether. The president's budget request for this fiscal year requested the authorization of a further round of base closure. Surely, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over and military end strengths being drawn down to meet the new reality, this is a good time to look at our physical infrastructure and consider reductions there as well. Don't look for that to happen. Section 2711 of the defense policy bill is entitled, "Prohibition on Conducting Additional Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Round."

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But if Congress can't bring itself to authorize the next round of needed base closures in the United States, how about requesting one for our inventory of overseas bases? While the actual number of U.S. bases overseas is closely held, we can estimate with confidence that it numbers in the 100s. Can we all agree that some of those bases should at least be reviewed for redundancy?

Another area with huge room for savings is reforms to both TriCare and the military retirement systems. Everyone agrees that the men and women who serve our country should be well taken care of after their service. But taking care of our troops after our service does not mean that we never raise their health care premiums, or should provide increases to retirement benefits beyond what we can afford.

The press release accompanying the final passage of the defense policy bill proudly states that Congress rejected all administration proposals to reform the fee structure of TriCare. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising enrollment fees, copayments and deductibles for retirees under the age of 65, as well as introducing minimum out of pocket payments under TriCare for life, would save $6.4 billion in fiscal year 2014. But it doesn't look like the Congress has the stomach to touch this issue and start exhibiting some leadership that would indicate it is ready to tackle some of the toughest problems facing the defense budget. How will we deal with ever increasing costs of manpower even as we reduce the size of our military?

These are tough questions, but if there were easy answers we wouldn't be in this position. Time for the administration and Congress to work together, exhibit leadership, and make sure that every dollar we spend on defense actually contributes to making us safer.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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