Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Smaller Budgets Will Result in a More Effective Military

(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky/POGO)

Thank you Chairman Visclosky, Ranking Member Calvert, and members of the Subcommittee for the opportunity to provide testimony on behalf of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight on the need to rein in the historically high level of defense spending. We are one of several groups working towards a more disciplined approach to Pentagon budgeting. Congress has opportunities now to create efficiencies that would ultimately result in a more effective military force. For instance, Congress could reduce service contracting by 10 to 15 percent, which would save $175 billion to $262.5 billion over ten years. In addition, Congress can and should eliminate the Overseas Contingency Operations budget loophole to restore discipline to the defense budgeting process. This would save $173 billion in this current budget cycle.1

The Committee should also be skeptical about proposals to create a new military bureaucracy with an independent Space Force. There are pressing military concerns in space, but space operations are a supporting function for the existing services. The military principle of unity of command, enshrined in the doctrine of all the services, holds that control of unique space assets should remain within their current hierarchies. Several of the plans put forward by Pentagon officials recently suggest the services will retain some organic space assets, which begs the question of the need for a redundant separate service.2 History shows that an independent service, in an attempt to solidify its own identity, will shortly forge its own path and in so doing dictate policy to the existing services. This creates a confusing situation regarding who supports whom. Second only to the military concerns are the financial concerns. In the short term, by not creating a separate service, we would save approximately $13 billion in projected spending over the next five years.3

The proposed fiscal year 2020 Pentagon budget at $750 billion would be the largest in American history.4 In return for their massive investment, the American people receive an overly complex and fragile portfolio of weapons that protects the bottom line of defense contractors but often falls far short of meeting the needs of our troops protecting us on the frontlines. In short, a bigger defense budget is resulting in a less capable force. So, unlike many who come before your Committee, I am urging you to spend less, not more.

It’s understandable that many people equate larger defense budgets with a more capable military. Common sense suggests that appropriating more money to the Pentagon would allow the services to buy more of the equipment they think they need to equip the force. Unfortunately, history has repeatedly shown that, when the services have increased budgets, they make poor decisions about the equipment they select. All of the services are burdened by poorly conceived acquisition programs, most of which were instituted in the years immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks at a time when Congress, in a rush of patriotic sentiments, greatly increased defense budgets with the ostensible purpose of defeating the immediate threat to our way of life.

Non-state actors based in the most remote corners of the globe attacked us that day, not a developed state using the latest military technology. To combat these actors, we would have to follow into places poorly suited to our highly mechanized force. Rather than dealing with these realities, the services seized the opportunity to create a force of futuristic weapons suited for a conventional war against nuclear-armed states. However, most of these technologies were unproven and have seen significant cost overruns.

  • The F-35 program’s cost grew by as much as 89% over the original baseline.5
  • The cost for each Littoral Combat Ship more than doubled from the original $220 million estimate.6
  • The Army’s Future Combat Systems program experienced a 76% cost growth before being abandoned completely.7
  • The cost for the Zumwalt-class destroyer grew by 45.1% before the Navy halted production after launching just 3 of the planned 32 ships.8
  • The Ford-class aircraft carrier program’s cost has grown an average of 21% per ship.9

Each of these programs suffered serious technical setbacks as their futuristic features often proved infeasible despite the cost overruns. The Navy originally conceived the Littoral Combat Ship as a modular design with interchangeable mission packages. This plan proved unworkable, prompting the Navy to abandon it. Questions about the ship’s survivability and combat capabilities eroded support for the program, which led to the decision to cut production short. Where most new programs feature three or four new technologies, the Zumwalt-class design included 11 cutting-edge features including rail guns and laser cannons all powered by electricity. Unsurprisingly, the complexity involved with getting everything to work properly proved too great.10 The problems with both programs prompted service leaders to throw in the proverbial towel and cut the planned production figures. They are now scrambling to institute new programs.11

Pentagon leaders, along with their allies in the defense industry, used their typical tricks to shield these programs from scrutiny for as long as possible to make it difficult to cancel them once their performance was found to be lacking. In order to get the programs approved, they made lavish claims about the transformative capabilities of the new systems and how they would be able to deliver them on time and on budget.12 They spread subcontracts all over the country to secure broad political support. They did this to manipulate Congress.13 In the end, our troops are stuck struggling with weapons and vehicles that don’t work as intended and that they can’t maintain, and the taxpayers are stuck with the bill. As a Marine Corps tank officer, I had to deal with “upgraded” fire control electronics in the Abrams that could only be replaced and not repaired in the field. If we did not have an available spare, we were out of luck. These “upgrades” provided little to no new capabilities to the tank. They didn’t provide the ability to shoot at longer ranges or any other measurable performance increases.

It is important to remember that war is a human endeavor. The late military mind and reformer John Boyd reminded us all what it takes to succeed in war. I will quote him in full because his words, spoken before Congress in 1991, are as true now as they were then, as they would have been in 1991 BC, and as they will be in 2991. 

“From a reform perspective, if we ask, ‘what does it take to win wars,’ reformers believe that there are three basic elements, and in order of importance they are: People. Why? Because wars are fought by people, not weapons. They use weapons. Strategy and tactics, because wars fought without innovative ideas become bloodbaths, winnable or not. Hardware, because weapons that don’t work or can’t be bought in adequate quantity will bring down even the best people and best ideas.”14

On the subject of weapons, the point cannot be made often enough that the realities of combat demand the simplest tools possible to perform the assigned tasks. Combat is chaotic and messy. Troops engaged with the enemy should be able to direct as much of their attention as possible outwards on their mission and on what they are doing to the enemy. Overly complicated weapons and gear compel troops to devote an increasing amount of their attention inwards on their own weapons and procedures. Anyone who has been stuck walking behind a person distracted by their phone knows why this is dangerous. The Air Force’s troubled new tanker aircraft serves as a prime example. The operator of the KC-46 Pegasus’s refueling boom controls it remotely by watching its movements and the aircraft it’s refueling through a series of cameras. Operators on KC-135 tankers, on the other hand, perform the same function while observing with their own eyes the position of the boom and the aircraft taking fuel. The system in the KC-46 is prone to damaging other aircraft when the boom nozzle strikes and scrapes the aircraft outside of the receptacle. This is of particular concern with stealth aircraft as damage to the special coating can increase the aircraft’s radar signature. Operators on the KC-135 rarely cause this kind of damage.15

Complicated weapons have other consequences as well. They tend to be more fragile and so are prone to breaking and fouling in the often harsh and dirty conditions of combat. This would be bad enough on its own, but many of these systems cannot be fixed in the field by service members. Many weapons produced today have been deliberately designed in such a way as to require contractors to perform basic maintenance functions.16 As a result, systems that go down in the middle of a fight can’t be fixed quickly by troops in the field.

Congress can help simplify the challenges faced by the military by restricting the Pentagon’s budget. This would force service leaders to make better acquisition decisions. By limiting the available funds, service leaders would have no choice but to pursue simpler programs. This would actually produce a more effective force. It’s the rare example of a virtuous circle in Washington.

There is another step this body can take to ensure the military is equipped properly without bankrupting the taxpayers. Congress should not approve funds to procure large numbers of military weapons or vehicles that have not completed testing, or what is known as the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation process. Weapons purchased before the testing process uncovers design flaws will need to be modified. The cost of doing this is in addition to the original price of the weapon, which means taxpayers have to pay twice for work that should have been done during the original development process. This is precisely what is happening with the F-35 program. Congress has authorized and appropriated funds for hundreds of aircraft that have been sent to the operational forces. Every one of these are currently nothing more than very expensive prototypes. All of them will require costly retrofits to incorporate the design changes that will be identified during testing. The scope of this problem cannot be overstated. The Director, Operational Test and Evaluation reported the F-35 program has 941 potentially mission-crippling design flaws that still have to be corrected.17

The Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight has spent years researching and reporting on these issues. We would be happy to provide the Subcommittee with our findings.

Thank you again for the opportunity to submit testimony on these important issues. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.