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Put the Pentagon On a Real Budget

It’s budget season again, which means it’s time for another round of budget gimmicks on the part of the Pentagon. The Obama administration’s new Pentagon budget proposal exceeds the budget caps established in current law by $34 billion. That’s a hefty sum even by Pentagon standards.

But it doesn’t stop there. The proposed war budget for fiscal year 2016 will come in at $51 billion. That’s tens of billions of dollars more than the amount needed to wind down the war in Afghanistan and sustain current operations against ISIL (also known as Islamic State). The rest will be used as a slush fund to pay for weapons and activities that have nothing to do with fighting either war.

All of these budgetary gymnastics underscore a central point about the Pentagon. It refuses to live on a budget, even though the $500 billion in base budget funding enshrined in current law is more than enough to provide a robust defense for the country.

Before busting the budget caps and larding the war budget with items that have nothing to do with fighting wars, the Pentagon should be required to reduce the massive waste and inefficiency that characterizes its current operations. Even more importantly, the department should rearrange its misguided priorities so it can equip and train U.S. forces to address the most urgent challenges of the 21st century.

The biggest savings should come from scaling back the Pentagon’s oversized bureaucracy. According to an analysis by Gordon Adams, the former head of national security budgeting in the White House during the Clinton administration, this “back office” includes at least 800,000 civilian employees, 700,000 contractor employees, and 340,000 military personnel engaged in civilian or commercial activities. That makes the Pentagon bureaucracy the equivalent of the fifth largest city in the United States. Right-sizing this bureaucratic behemoth could save tens of billions of dollars per year that could be used for other purposes.

Another area of savings should come from eliminating or reducing poorly performing and marginally useful weapons systems like the F-35 combat aircraft. At $1.5 trillion to build and operate over its lifetime, the F-35 is the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon. The plane is far from combat ready, but before spending tens of billions more on the program its proposed missions should be assigned to upgraded versions of current generation aircraft. In the longer run some hard choices will have to be made about how many piloted aircraft are even needed in an era of increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Another massive procurement program that should be scaled back is the next generation ballistic missile submarine. The Navy wants to build 12 of the subs over the next two decades at a cost of up to $100 billion. Yet an analysis by the Arms Control Association has shown that the sea-launched ballistic missile force could be configured to carry the same number of warheads with only eight submarines, at a savings of $16 billion over the next decade.

Big ticket items are obvious sources of savings, but small things also add up. The Pentagon routinely overpays for every thing from spare parts to prescription drugs. Better buying practices could save billions per year.

An important element of any effort to save money at the Pentagon must be a revamping of the department’s outmoded and ineffective accounting systems. The Department of Defense cannot pass a simple audit, and it recently admitted that it does not even know for sure how many people it employs. This has to change if taxpayers are to get a reasonable return on their defense dollars. Last year Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Michael Burgess (R-TX) introduced a bill that would have reduced spending on sections of the Pentagon that cannot be audited by one-half of one percent, as an incentive for the department to clean up its act. Hopefully Congress will take up a similar measure this year.

In short, it’s time to put the Pentagon on a real budget, and make it stick to it.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Originally published on Huffington Post.

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