By William D. Hartung
As Congress and the White House scramble to come up with a deficit reduction plan that will stave off across-the-board spending cuts before their self-imposed March 1 deadline, one area is ripe for reductions: The Pentagon.
As former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, has noted, the Department of Defense budget suffers from “bloat” that can and should be reduced as part of any plan to reshape our military to address 21st century threats.
Bloat takes many forms, from shoddy bookkeeping to spending on troops and weapons systems that we no longer need.
For example, a growing coalition of fiscal conservatives and Pentagon reformers are asking why the Pentagon is the only federal agency that is unable to pass an audit. The Department of Defense is literally unable to tell us where its money goes. It can’t answer basic questions such as how much equipment it has in storage or how many private contractors it employs. As a result, it can’t make realistic spending plans.
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has promised that the department will be auditable by 2017, but that is too little, too late. The Pentagon is slated to spend more than $2 trillion over the next five years, and taxpayers deserve to know how their dollars are being spent. The next secretary of defense should make getting the Pentagon’s fiscal house in order a top priority.
Another area where major savings can be found is in military personnel. With the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, we can afford to reduce our armed forces by at least 200,000 troops. There are no plans to fight large-scale, “boots-on-the-ground” conflicts in the foreseeable future, nor should there be. Absent such a commitment, we can afford to scale back our active military to about 1.2 million troops, more than enough to meet any likely contingency.
That brings us to weapons procurement. To cite only one example among many, the F-35 combat aircraft — which is meant to be the plane of the future for the Air Force, Navy and Marines — is skyrocketing in price even as it fails to perform as advertised. The Pentagon has pledged to buy more than 2,400 F-35s at a cost of over $1 trillion in the decades to come — and that doesn’t even include the cost of operating and maintaining the aircraft.
At a time when aerial combat is destined to be a dying art, and when current-generation aircraft can be upgraded to perform the tasks assigned to the F-35, we can save hundreds of billions of dollars by scaling back this immensely expensive program.
Perhaps the most ill-conceived expenditures of all are the plans by the Pentagon and the Department of Energy to invest in a new generation of nuclear weapons.
In all, we are scheduled to spend $640 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade on items such as nuclear bombers, ballistic-missile submarines, and facilities to produce uranium and plutonium components of nuclear warheads. Cutting the bombers, subs and weapons facilities would save tens of billions of dollars in the next decade.
Nuclear weapons serve no useful purpose in addressing the most urgent threats we face, and if they are ever used again it would be an unprecedented human catastrophe.
We should be getting rid of nuclear weapons, not preparing to build more.
As Obama opens his second term and begins to think of his legacy, reining in the Pentagon and rolling back the nuclear threat are two worthy goals.
And they should be key components in solving our long-term deficit problem.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms & Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of “Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex” (Nation Books, 2012)