By The Editorial Board, USATODAY
The government is underfunding a lot of things these days — infrastructure and science, to name just a couple.
Now it’s national defense that is at risk of being shortchanged. This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined a military budget that would make significant cuts. Among other things it would retire the Air Force’s A-10 “Warthog” anti-tank plane, further reduce the number of domestic bases and slash the Army to a size not seen since 1940.
Hagel is right that America needs a nimble, high-tech military for a new era. But the sheer scale of the cuts is far from ideal, as they would limit America’s ability to take on a second foe while engaged with a first.
The United States would continue to spend far more on defense than any other nation, so the issue is less the total number of dollars budgeted than how those dollars are allocated.
As is the case with non-defense priorities, the Defense Department is getting squeezed by benefit programs — both those internal to the Pentagon and those on the outside such as Medicare and Social Security.
This trend has been playing out for decades. Fifty years ago, the military made up nearly half of government spending; now it is about 17%. Entitlements were a third of the budget then; now they are nearly two-thirds.
Business leaders, economists, scientists and educators have all pointed out the folly of this approach, particularly as roads, bridges and airports fall into disrepair. Now, with the ax falling on the military, a new constituency — those deeply concerned with national security — is getting a firsthand look at the imbalance in the nation’s spending policies.
Within the Pentagon, this means the department is starting to resemble the pre-bankruptcy General Motors — an institution so burdened by legacy pension and health care costs that it is starved for resources to perform its core mission.
The Pentagon spends roughly $60 billion a year, or about 10% of its budget, on health care and retirement benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends an additional $86 billion.
Servicemembers can retire after 20 years (at roughly age 40) and collect an inflation-adjusted pension of half their final salary, and heavily subsided health care, for the rest of their lives. After 30 years of service, they can get 75% plus health care.
The cost of these benefits has soared in recent years, in part because of overall health care inflation, but largely because military groups have prevailed on Congress to greatly expand them.
When Congress tried recently to take some baby steps in the opposite direction, imposing small reductions in pension cost-of-living increases for those who retire early, those same groups forced it to reverse course.
Hagel’s budget also calls for some modest benefit cuts, such as raising some deductibles and co-pays in the military’s Tricare health system, and trimming housing and grocery subsidies.
Benefits for servicemembers — particularly troops who serve in combat zones, often on multiple deployments — should be altered with great care. But tighter budgets require tougher choices. Hagel’s spending plan begins to make them. If only Congress were willing to do the same.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.