By Paul Barrett
As sequestration hysteria grips Washington, top uniformed officials at the Pentagon have joined Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in warning that across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect on March 1 will cripple the American military and endanger the effectiveness of soldiers, sailors, and pilots.
General Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, has declared that the cuts—a $46 billion reduction in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget, barring a last-minute political compromise—could curtail training for 80 percent of ground forces. The Navy has delayed the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, leaving just one of the gigantic vessels in that volatile region, even as tensions continue simmering with Iran. The Air Force is talking about slashing flying hours, leaving two-thirds of its pilots below an acceptable level of readiness. And so on.
Flapdoodle. The military is manufacturing a crisis to protect its wasteful, bloated, poorly designed budget. Sequestration, which mandates no-thought, across-the-board spending cuts, is a dumb way to force fiscal discipline. But there’s an alternative, at least at the Pentagon. Panetta and the generals could say to Congress: We accept that you politicians have backed yourselves into a corner and budgets have to come down. But let us point out several big-ticket items we can erase, rather than putting this process on autopilot.
A devastating series by our colleagues at Bloomberg News shows that “the defense budget contains hundreds of billions of dollars for new generations of aircraft carriers and stealth fighters, tanks that even the Army says it doesn’t need and combat vehicles too heavy to maneuver in desert sands or cross most bridges in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.” Read this comprehensive expose and weep. Or read it as an implicit road map for how to shrink the military in a rational way.
For the benefit of harried members of Congress and their staff, not to mention the president and his aides, here are five ideas for major Pentagon budget cuts that would actually improve the national defense by instilling a new spirit of budget discipline:
1. Ground the glitch-ridden F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-35 was supposed to produce state-of-the-art stealth jets. It is seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over cost estimates. At almost $400 billion, the F-35 has become the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history and one that offers only marginal improvements over existing aircraft, according to Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit policy institute in Washington. (On Friday, the Pentagon grounded its nascent 51-plane fleet of F-35s after discovering a cracked engine blade in one jet.) The F-35 is “worth killing, particularly given its technical problems,” Blechman said. “Putting the F-35 into production years before the first flight test was acquisition malpractice,” Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition undersecretary, said in February 2012. So, um, let’s do something about it, Frank.
2. While we’re at it, how about parking the Ground Combat Vehicle? With wind-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army’s strength is due to decline by some 72,000 by 2017. Still, we’re poised to spend as much as $32 billion to buy 1,904 new Ground Combat Vehicles, tank-like replacements for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. What the Army actually needs is improved, smaller vehicles to get modest-sized forces into trouble spots with greater alacrity. The 70-ton Ground Combat Vehicle won’t be easily transportable by air or sea, raising questions about “how quickly it could be deployed in the event of a conflict,” according to a report (PDF) issued in January by the Congressional Research Service.
3. On the topic of Army gas-guzzlers: Even the generals admit that they don’t want or need an updated version of the familiar M1 combat tank. The M1 was originally built to face off against Soviet tanks in a land war in Europe, which thankfully never happened. Congress, however, intends to keep doling out billions to gut and renovate old M1s. That makes no sense.
4. Dock the Littoral Combat Ship. The Navy is building two versions of the troubled vessel that was once billed as a low-cost, versatile coastal patrol ship. The LCS has doubled in price, to more than $440 million a ship. Evaluators have determined that its guns aren’t effective, meaning it might not survive in combat.
5. Excess bureaucracy must go. “One need only spend 10 minutes walking around the Pentagon or any major military headquarters to see excess and redundancy,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in September at an event organized by the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He should know. As defense chief in 2009, he culled 20 weapons systems he thought unnecessary or too expensive, including the F-22 fighter. One place to start thinning the bureaucracy: the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That office has more than tripled in manpower, to 4,244 in 2012 from 1,313 in 2010, according to the Pentagon’s annual manpower report. (Fewer bureaucrats means fewer memos and fewer meetings. Win-win-win.)
Why is sensible military budgeting so difficult? Because lawmakers, including small-government Republicans, protect defense business in their home states with the ferocity of Spartans. Even if the Pentagon offered up the cuts we’ve outlined here, Congress would almost certainly reject them. The senators and representatives don’t have the political courage to face voters and tell them that the republic simply does not need the weapon under construction in their hometown.
Consider the F-35. Primarily made by Lockheed Martin (LMT), the plane has 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs, according to Lockheed. “It’s got a lot of political protection,” according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information in Washington. “Very, very few members of Congress are willing to say this is an unaffordable dog and we need to get rid of it.”
So rather than making strategic spending reductions that might produce a leaner, more effective military, sequestration will result in fewer pilot training hours and under-prepared soldiers. The generals light their hair on fire, and lawmakers protect the pork. Ah, democracy.