Commentary: Pentagon Needs Budget Reality

By Tom Collina and Will Saetren

The brewing battle in Congress between Republican budget hawks and defense hawks has broken into open conflict, and the result is an uneasy truce based on a budget loophole. But this political compromise only papers over the underlying problem — the Pentagon budget is simply too big. This truce will not last.

Rather than play the partisan game of “who is tougher on defense,” Congress needs to help Pentagon leaders do what they seem incapable of doing for themselves: setting realistic priorities and reducing unnecessary spending, such as rebuilding an oversized nuclear arsenal. Given that nuclear weapons play essentially no role in responding to the primary threats to the United States — such as terrorism and proliferation — we can safely reduce investments in this area.

The Senate and House Budget committees voted to peg annual defense spending at $523 billion, staying within the cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), and thereby pleasing the budget hawks who want to reduce the deficit. And for defense hawks, who want to increase defense spending, the Budget committees added about $38 billion to the overseas contingency operations (OCO), which is not limited by the BCA.

But this is not the way OCO was meant to be used. The OCO account was intended to support short-term war funding, not long-term military investments.

At a March 23 forum on nuclear security in Washington, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James noted, “The overseas contingency operation can be a fine thing … but you can’t fund modernization programs that are multiyear out of one-year money like OCO. To look at OCO as a panacea for this situation … it doesn’t make sense.”

Even Sen. John McCain, chair of the Armed Services Committee, has criticized Congress’ OCO gimmick: “This Congress can and should do better than use overseas contingency operations funds to address this crisis of our own making.”

Moreover, the extra $38 billion may never materialize. It must still be approved by the congressional appropriations committees, who would have to find that money elsewhere in the budget if they wanted to avoid adding to the deficit. No small feat.

“Any defense hawks who think this was a victory will soon realize why it is not after a short-lived moment,” warned Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute.

The only lasting solution is for defense leaders to make the tough choices about how to spend limited funds. As Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently suggested, the Pentagon needs to cut wasteful spending in order to maintain its effectiveness. Everything should be on the table “including parts of our budget that have long been considered inviolate.”

Nuclear weapons fit that criteria perfectly.

Over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the United States will spend about $350 billion on nuclear weapons. Other reports say that over 30 years the bill is expected to balloon to $1 trillion.

That’s a big number. To give some perspective, if you spent $1 million a day since Jesus was born, you would “only” have spent about $730 billion to date.

More than 25 years after the end of the Cold War we should be reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our military planning, and scaling back the nuclear budget. Spending that kind of money on weapons we haven’t used in 70 years, and that the United States one day hopes to eliminate, is an unsound strategy that diverts funds from conventional programs that feature more prominently in our military strategy.

In testimony to the Senate on March 4, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Frank Kendall, acknowledged that as the new nuclear bombers and submarines start to roll out in the early 2020s, “we’re going to start to have an affordability problem.”

According to estimates from the CBO and the Congressional Research Service, the Navy alone will be forced to cut a minimum of 32 combat ships from its shipbuilding budget if it proceeds with current plans to produce 12 Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines. And that’s the best case scenario. Other estimates have the Navy cutting 69 ships, including two aircraft carriers, 17 attack submarines and 20 destroyers.

The Air Force will face similar strains on its budget as it develops new nuclear-capable bombers, a new nuclear cruise missile and new long-range missile.

It’s high time that Congress chart a new course, lest the current one result in a budgetary train wreck that harms US national security.

Fortunately, some in Congress are taking action. Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Earl Blumenauer have introduced the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act of 2015 in the House and Senate. This bill would save tens of billions of dollars over the next decade alone by trimming portions of the arsenal and scaling back current modernization plans. Yet it would also retain the nuclear triad and keep the US at planned warhead levels.

“Instead of spending this year’s budget debate focused solely on repealing defense spending caps, or stuffing excess Pentagon spending into the overseas contingency operations account, Congress should instead be focusing on ways to extract more value and greater savings from existing programs,” Blumenauer said. “The SANE Act would do exactly that.”

Markey pointed out that, “we are robbing America’s future to pay for unneeded weapons of the past. … The Defense Department should prioritize spending for current threats from ISIL, al-Qaeda and cyber terrorists.”

As the GOP fights an internal political battle with budget gimmicks, the Pentagon is building real hardware it does not need, choking off needed investments in conventional weapons that we might actually use. There is no justification for increased spending on nuclear weapons, which do not address the highest priority threats we face. By allowing scarce resources to flow where they are needed most, the SANE Act will enhance US national security.

Commentary: Pentagon Needs Budget Reality.