Defense Department Cuts Are Fiscally Conservative

On Tuesday, February 25th, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the Department of Defense’s budget submission for fiscal year 2015. The Obama Administration’s proposal presents a $75 billion reduction in spending over two years which is in line with a yearly spending level of $496 billion and commensurate with what the administration and Congress agreed to in last December’s budget negotiations.

The Republican reaction to the proposed cutbacks was completely predictable: there’s no such thing as a good defense cut in their eyes. That was reinforced by nearly every speaker who broached the topic at CPAC March 6-8: every defense dollar must be a good one. Democrats in Congress haven’t sat on the sidelines either. Those from districts or states with large defense establishments also have offered skepticism — more measured, but skepticism all the same.

You know, I’m really starting to wonder if President Eisenhower was right in his farewell speech when he said this:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

The Obama Administration is right on defense cuts, but for the wrong reason. They’re stuck on the standard liberal preferences for domestic spending over defense spending.

Republicans are wrong on the cuts because they’re blinded by their loyalty to their two favorite protected classes: military suppliers and the military itself. The reality is that they’re coddling the former while telling the latter that the raw dollar amount spent on them and their services is all that matters.

Defense cuts are fiscally conservative.

In fact, there’s no other way to describe them. We overpay for defense across the board — with the exception of military pay. A few minutes spent with an inflation calculator and the DoD’s historical pay tables demonstrates that military pay has either escalated in line with inflation or has slightly lagged behind, depending on the time periods one analyzes.

Personally, I think we are underpaying our men and women in uniform for what they do and have done. Increasing military pay is a non-starter as the defense budget is being slashed, but the money to pay our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen more is already there. Politicians and appointed officials in and out of uniform just need the courage to tackle the systemic financial problems in defense procurement.

When it comes to equipping and supplying our warriors, costs have escalated so far in excess of inflation it’s absolutely sickening. I wrote about that phenomenon at length on my personal blog back in December 2012, so I’m not going to repeat myself except to point out two quick examples of cost escalation, taking inflation into consideration and making comparisons in 2012 dollars.

  • The United States Air Force’s future air refueling tanker, the Boeing KC-46A (a modified 767 airliner), costs 56.5 percent more per plane than the Air Force’s previous KC-10 tanker and is 40.3 percent less capable of carrying fuel than the KC-10. The newly confirmed Secretary of the Air Force, Ms. Deborah Lee James, in her recent “State of the Air Force” speech (February 21) identified the KC-46 as one of the top three modernization needs for the service.
  • The future USS Gerald R. Ford, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier currently under construction by Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News Shipbuilding, is expected to cost $13.5 billion or more by the time she is commissioned in 2015. She will replace the first nuclear powered carrier, the already retired USS Enterprise, which entered service in 1961 at constant dollar cost of almost $3.5 billion – at least $10 billion less than the newest carrier.

The example of the Ford is particularly relevant. We just witnessed conservative outrage over a reduction in cost-of-living increases to military pensions of $7 billion over the next decade. Isn’t it wonderful when conservatives buy into reductions in the rate of growth being “cuts?” Memo: military pensions would have still gone up, just not as quickly.

Perhaps if conservatives instead focused on holding military contractors accountable for the costs of their products – and members of the government defense establishment accountable for their lack of oversight in procurement – we’d probably have enough in Secretary Hagel’s budget for a military two or more times the size with no worries about pay and take care of sustaining military pensions for ten years with perhaps $3 billion to spare.

Insisting that we get commensurate value for each and every dollar of the defense budget is both fiscally conservative and also does right by both our brave men and women in uniform and the American taxpayers they protect with their lives. If it takes “draconian” budget cuts to get more people to examine cost vs. value propositions when it comes to defense spending – forcing people to do more with less – then I am for them.

The defense department budget does not contain some one-off, easy to fix cases of “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Its problems are systemic and have been built over decades. We shouldn’t buy into common scare tactics that defense cuts will leave us vulnerable to attack.

Our relative vulnerability – and by extension, our ability to react to threats and win wars – is entirely dependent upon our government having the political will to wage war when it is necessary and wage it fully, with all the resources and violence we can bring to bear. However, that isn’t how the United States has largely prosecuted combat since the end of World War II. Annihilating our enemies, or sending them to the brink of annihilation so they unconditionally surrender, has been taken off the table.

Our national resolve to wage war and attain victory in battle only has one currency in which it can ultimately be measured: the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen.

Perhaps if the civilian politicians who control our military — regardless of party in power — are given far fewer dollars, they’ll be less willing to spend our warriors for less than total victory.