Last week, on the same day we learned that the Department of Defense spent $43 million for a gas station that should have cost only $500,000, Congress congratulated itself on signing a budget deal to increase Pentagon spending. The deal adds $40 billion to the Pentagon’s base budget and a minimum of $58.8 billion in the Pentagon’s overseas contingency operations (OCO) slush fund for the next two years.
Yet, because the budget deal provided $5 billion less than what had been approved in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016, the House and Senate Armed Services committees had to scramble to find reductions.
“There will be real programs that are cut.… We are looking at them all and trying to do the least damage, but nobody should be under the illusion that you can do this in a non-painful way,” House Armed Services committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) complained.
In this time of grave choices, let’s look at what they didn’t touch: they didn’t slash an irresponsible $1 billion allocated to increase F-35 production beyond what the Pentagon requested, $30 million for an East Coast Missile Defense site the Pentagon doesn’t want, or even the absurd $40 million authorized for the JLENS blimp program that’s a study in waste. For now at least, those appear to be sacrosanct.
Instead, according to the deal, the acute suffering appears to have come with $510 million in cuts for the National Guard Heritage Paintings Initiative and $8.5 million from public affairs offices at local installations. Under the gun, $40 million was found from “excess” spare parts and repairs for the Navy and the Air Force. Other so-called cuts essentially realigned the bill with reality—$250 million to reflect the delay in awarding the bomber contract; $125 million now that the train-and-equip program for Syria has been declared a failure and canceled; and $1.1 billion through lower fuel costs. Many of the other savings, defense analyst Gordon Adams points out, are largely on paper: $450 million for “headquarters streamlining,” and $350 million was found as a result of “overestimation” or “underexecution” of personnel targets for the Army, Air Force, and the Navy.
The lesson here is that the defense budget still contains plenty of fat, even as appropriators warn of dire consequences when we reduce core capabilities. It took a budget crisis merely to force this level of thinking about our spending priorities.
“The bloated budgets the Pentagon has grown accustomed to fosters the intellectually lazy mindset that we can buy our way to an effective military. As the force resets from Iraq and Afghanistan, we need more thinking, not more spending,” said Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Fellowfor POGO’s Center for Defense Information (CDI) / Straus Military Reform Project. “Budget fights in Washington can and do have a negative impact on the men and women serving in uniform, and there are many difficult decisions that need to be made. The debate now should not be how much, but how we spend defense dollars.”
“The Department of Defense is not in the business of winning wars, but of defending bloated pork-budgets. The only thing in the Pentagon that has to do with fighting and winning wars are the pictures on the walls,” said CDI Military Advisory Board Member retired Marine Corps Colonel Gary I. Wilson. “Accountability and responsibility are dead on arrival in the budget process.”
Perhaps the most repugnant aspect of this deal is that, in playing games with the OCO account as a release valve for out-of-control spending, Congress continues to enable the Pentagon waste and delay pursuing overdue reforms. “We’re essentially admitting we have a fundamental mismatch between spending and requirements, and instead of addressing it with reduced tasking levels, waste reduction, or a deliberately larger spending level, the political branches are engaging in a grand shirk by refusing to include everything in the base budget,” said CDI Military Advisory Board Member retired Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Carr. “They're normalizing a deviant practice. Every time we allow this, we’re delaying the onset of the necessary political courage to rein in defense spending.”