Preserving security by curbing Pentagon spending

December 13th, 2012

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This piece was originally featured on The Hill.

Two widely respected Pentagon leaders have issued two sets of warnings about grave risks to our national security. The problem: both claims are dire but seem diametrically opposed. However, they can be reconciled if the President and congressional negotiators resolve the apparent tension in ways that both protect our national security and help to restore our economic strength.

The first warning comes from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has said that the cuts to the Pentagon budget that would result from sequestration would be “devastating.” He warned that such cuts could “hollow out the force.”

The second is from Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has repeatedly warned that “the greatest threat to our national security is our debt.” He started making that claim during his tenure in the Pentagon and has repeated it often since his retirement last year. His point is that the U.S. is running unsustainable ratios of debt-to-GDP, and our weakened economy has impacted our ability to influence and move global events. The Department of Defense, which consumes about half of all discretionary federal spending, must face some fairly large budget cuts.

Admiral Mullen is surely correct that we need to pare back defense spending. It is imperative to cut the defense budget by about $500 billion over the next ten years, which is what the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission concluded and a number of independent experts have concluded. And indeed, that’s just about the same amount that sequestration would cut from the defense budget.

But Secretary Panetta is also correct in saying that sequestration, with its across-the-board, meat-ax approach to the budget, is the wrong way to do it. Sequestration would force deep and dangerous cuts to programs we are using to fight our enemies today, like our Special Forces and drones, while not going far enough to trim the Cold War relics and bloated sections of the military that are no longer valuable or affordable.

We are now emerging from more than a decade of war. As President Obama has made clear, we must match future defense spending to national security strategy. With the Iraq misadventure now over and the Afghanistan War ending, what we need isn’t a defense cut, it is a well-planned correction to the Pentagon’s budget.

We can return to 2002 (pre-war) levels of Pentagon spending — about $460 billion in today’s dollars, plus a little extra for counter-terrorism — without in any way imperiling our security or planning for future contingencies. The Pentagon and the White House must be given the flexibility to choose where to trim the fat and where to concentrate the resources. We have always drawn-down our military size and corrected our level of spending at the conclusion of major wars, and by next year we will be ending the longest period of warfare in our history. This time should be no different.

That is not to suggest that finding almost $50 billion per year in defense savings will be easy. There simply isn’t enough bureaucratic bloat or $600 hammers left on the Pentagon books to get us there by simply eliminating Washington’s favorite trio of boogeymen: Waste, Fraud, and Abuse. But we can make some strategic choices: High-cost, complex weapons systems that never make it out of the design phase to the field should be cancelled in favor of mission-driven, proven technologies. The end-strength of our ground forces, which were raised to meet the insatiable demands of two long wars, can be drawn down. The Pentagon pays the largest fuel bill of any organization in the world, and that number rises every day. But these costs can be managed by aggressive efforts at energy efficiency and by developing high-performing alternative fuels.

Perhaps toughest of all, we can finally begin to grapple with the skyrocketing cost of the Pentagon’s TRICARE health care system. We can make a number of changes to TRICARE to keep it affordable without breaking faith with our military, retired military or their families. For example, we should ensure that at least working-age military retirees are paying enrollment fees that keep pace with inflation.

To be sure, some will argue that we cut military spending by almost half a trillion dollars last year, so cutting the defense budget further will leave us weakened. But even if we instituted the additional cuts recommended above, we still would be spending more than President Bush and a Republican Congress allocated in 2002, when we undoubtedly had the strongest military in the world. We can modernize our force and become leaner, more targeted and more efficient without losing any of the global military dominance that we have held since the end of the Cold War. And by helping to restore us to economic might, such defense cuts would end up making America stronger.