Defense spending is a hot topic in Washington, with growing pressure to bust the budget caps agreed to in the Budget Control Act in 2011.
With uncertainty over Russian intervention in Ukraine, the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, civil war in Libya and Yemen and continuing tensions with Iran, most budget proposals considered this year, regardless of party, are to increase defense spending, although by varying amounts.
With the geopolitical and domestic political winds blowing in that direction, is there a way for those of who support defense reform to remain relevant? There are, in fact, ample opportunities to cut defense spending, even when the United States is at war.
Require the Pentagon to pass an audit to receive funding. The Audit the Pentagon coalition has been working on legislation to force the Pentagon to comply with the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990. That law requires all federal agencies to pass an annual financial audit and the Pentagon has never been in compliance. Congress should attach financial penalties to defense spending any year the Pentagon cannot pass an audit. This will identify whether or not tax dollars are being spend appropriately by the Department of Defense.
Time to cancel the F-35 fighter. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is touted as possibly the last-manned fighter the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps would ever order. It’s also touted as the plane that would ensure American air superiority for years to come. The plane has been plagued with cost overruns and technical issues. The two most recent technical issues could impact the F-35’s intended role in close air support. The new Small Diameter Bomb II cannot fit inside the bomb bay of the Marine Corps’ F-35B. If an F-35 pilot wanted to engage targets using a cannon, they would be out of luck, as well. The software required to fire the cannon won’t be ready until 2019. It’s time to begin exploring alternatives to the F-35 and pull the plug on the program.
Cut the civilian staff of the Department of Defense. New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has opened the door to cutting more civilian staff. Republican lawmakers proposed a bill to cut more than 115,000 jobs from the Pentagon’s work force. Surely both parties can reach a deal to cut the size of the civilian workforce. This will free funds to take care of the combat needs of the military.
Reduce the number of generals and admirals and restructure the force. The U.S. military has too many generals and admirals. The force is also too top-heavy with the large number of support personnel attached to each flag officer. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once bemoaned that there were 30 layers of bureaucracy between him and an action officer. These generals and admirals have access to numerous taxpayer-funded perks, including stately quarters, personal chefs and drivers and private jets. As of 2012, the GAO estimated the cost to taxpayers of these combatant commands is $1.1 billion. This personnel structure not only bleeds taxpayer money, but places the lives of troops in danger, as it slows down reaction time in a crisis.
The Pentagon must better account for money spent overseas. While the entire Pentagon must be audited, so long as the United States is engaged in overseas combat operations, safeguards are needed to ensure the money is best spent wisely. Recent reports show that the government cannot account for $45 billion spent in Afghanistan. It will be much more difficult to ask for money for overseas operations without accounting for how current money is spent.
There is widespread agreement that men and women in uniform need the equipment and support to accomplish their missions. The Pentagon and Congress also have obligations to taxpayers to ensure that money is well spent.