The Pentagon can do with far fewer than the 1,700 F-35s it plans on buying.
To hear some military commanders and members of Congress talk, the American military is worn out and in desperate need of more money. After more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, they say, troops are lagging in training and new weaponry, which is jeopardizing their ability to defeat the Islamic State and deal with potential conflicts with Russia and China.
While increased funding for some programs may be needed, total military spending, at nearly $600 billion annually, is not too low. The trouble is, the investment has often yielded poor results, with the Pentagon, Congress and the White House all making bad judgments, playing budget games and falling under the sway of defense industry lobbyists. Current military spending is 50 percent higher in real terms than it was before 9/11, yet the number of active duty and reserve troops is 6 percent smaller.
For nearly a decade after 9/11, the Pentagon had a virtual blank check; the base defense budget rose, in adjusted dollars, from $378 billion in 1998 to $600 billion in 2010. As the military fought Al Qaeda and the Taliban, billions of dollars were squandered on unnecessary items, including new weapons that ran late and over budget like the troubled F-35 jet fighter.
The waste and the budget games continue with the House Armed Services Committee approving a $583 billion total defense authorization bill for 2017 last month that skirts the across-the-board caps imposed by Congress in 2011 on discretionary federal spending.
The caps are supposed to restrain domestic and military spending equally, but defense hawks have insisted on throwing more money at the Pentagon. That doesn’t encourage efficiency or wise choices. The panel took $18 billion from a $59 billion off-budget account, which has become a slush fund renewed annually to finance the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots, and is not subject to the budget caps, and repurposed that money for use in the $524 billion base military budget.
The move will underwrite the purchase of more ships, jet fighters, helicopters and other big-ticket weapons that the Pentagon didn’t request and will keep the Army from falling below 480,000 active-duty troops. It also means the war account will run out of money next April. Representative Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the committee, apparently assumes the next president will be forced to ask for, and Congress will be forced to approve, more money for the war account. This sleight of hand runs the risk that troops overseas, at some point, could be deprived of some resources, at least temporarily. The full House should reject this maneuver.
Many defense experts, liberals and centrists as well as hawks, agree that more investment is needed in maintenance, training and modernizing aging weapons and equipment. These needs were identified years ago, yet the Pentagon and Congress have chosen to invest in excessively costly high-tech weaponry while deferring maintenance and other operational expenses.
The Pentagon can do with far fewer than the 1,700 F-35s it plans on buying. It should pare back on President Obama’s $1 trillion plan to replace nearly every missile, submarine, aircraft and warhead in the nuclear arsenal. Defense officials recently reported that 22 percent of all military bases will not be needed by 2019. Civilian positions will have to be reduced, while reforms in health care and the military procurement system need to be carried out. All of these changes make good sense, given the savings they would bring. But they are politically unpalatable; base closings, for instance, have been stubbornly resisted in recent years by lawmakers fearful of angering voters by eliminating jobs in communities that are economically dependent on those bases.
Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that sustaining the current military force of roughly two million and paying for all the new weapons systems will cost billions more than Congress has allowed under the budget caps. To maintain sensible troop levels, Congress and the administration need to begin honestly addressing the hard fiscal choices that they have largely been loath to make.