By William D. Hartung
There is a growing chorus of voices on Capitol Hill arguing that the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria justifies lifting the caps on the Pentagon’s base budget that are embedded in current law. These arguments ignore the massive resources already at the Pentagon’s disposal.
First, if the plan to arm the “moderate” Syrian opposition goes forward, Congress will vote to authorize additional funds for it separately. So that spending need not come from the Pentagon’s base budget.
Second, the existing war budget, known in Washington-ese as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, is tens of billions of dollars larger than what is needed to wind down the war in Afghanistan. There is so much money there that the Pentagon is seeking to buy six new F-35s with war funding, even though they won’t be ready for combat until at least 2016, based on the Pentagon’s optimistic assumptions.
The Pentagon may also benefit from the current budget chaos. If, as expected, Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep the government open through early December, the war budget will stay at the 2014 level, which will give the Pentagon about $15 billion in war spending to play with over the next two months alone.
Until recently, the Pentagon has suggested that the war on ISIS was costing about $7.5 million per day, or a little over 3 percent of the $232 million per day contained in this year’s war budget. So even if costs mount to fund President Obama’s new strategy, there will be more than enough money sloshing around in the Pentagon’s war budget to pay for expanded operations. There are plenty of reasons to question the wisdom of widening the war in Iraq and Syria, and taxpayers should keep a close eye on costs if the conflict continues to escalate for years to come. But the Pentagon has more than enough money to pay for anything the administration is now contemplating.
All of this comes in the context of a Pentagon budget that was bloated to begin with. Although the base budget has come down by about 10 per cent in the past few years, it is still close to the highest levels since World War II. And there is plenty of waste to be squeezed out of the budget, from excess personnel at the Pentagon to over-reliance on pricy private contractors. There are also multi-billion dollar weapons programs like the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship that are overpriced, underperforming, and unnecessary as currently configured. The F-35 program alone is slated to cost almost $1.4 trillion to build and operate over its lifetime, even though there is no need to build this kind of aircraft in the numbers proposed.
In addition, as a study by the Monterey Institute has shown, the cost of maintaining and modernizing the nuclear triad of bombers, land-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines could hit a $1 trillion by the mid-2030s. These expenditures are also wasteful, because the United States could cut back its nuclear arsenal substantially while still retaining the capacity to deter any nation from attacking us or our allies with nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the best way to eliminate the nuclear danger is to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether, but even short of that goal there are hundreds of billions of dollars to be saved.
Perhaps the clearest sign that the Pentagon is overfunded is that the department cannot even pass a simple audit. It does not know how many private contractors it is employing or how much inventory it has, a situation that is an invitation to waste, fraud, and abuse. Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) found that the Pentagon had millions of dollars of perfectly good ammunition slated for destruction even as the department was buying more. And the Pentagon routinely overpays for everything from spare parts to prescription drugs.
In the budget battles of the coming years, taxpayers should demand that the Pentagon do a far better job with the money it already has before it asks for billions more.
Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. His twitter handle is @WilliamHartung.