Still need budget discipline at the Pentagon | The Hill

By William D. Hartung

The Republican takeover of the Senate has raised hopes at the Pentagon and in the arms industry that the caps on the Pentagon budget that were imposed under the Budget Control Act of 2011 will finally be lifted.  Doing so could mean hundreds of billions of dollars in additional Pentagon spending over the next decade.

But advocates of higher Pentagon spending shouldn’t celebrate just yet.  The disagreements over taxes, spending, and deficits that helped create the current budget caps are not going to go away just because there are more Republican senators on Capitol Hill.

It’s unlikely that the new Republican majority will want to raise taxes as one of its first official acts.  And the Democratic minority in the Senate is still large enough to block any substantial additional cuts to domestic programs.  Absent movement on one or both of these fronts, the budget caps will not be lifted and the Pentagon’s base budget will continue to come in well below what the department would like to see.

Even if a deal is struck that gives the Pentagon partial relief from the budget caps – like the one crafted by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in December 2013 – the department will have to make tough choices among programs to fit within its available budget. There are too many big-ticket items slated to be built, and there is too little procurement funding to build them.

For example, if things go ahead as planned, the F-35 combat aircraft will rack up nearly $400 billion in procurement costs over the next two and one-half decades.  And it’s not as if this is the only major program the Air Force is looking to fund over this time period.  A new refueling tanker, a new strategic bomber, and new, more advanced unmanned aerial systems will all be vying for a chunk of the Air Force’s budget.  Even under the best-case scenario for the Pentagon, it will not be possible to build all of these systems simultaneously.

Similarly, the Navy’s shipbuilding budget cannot accommodate 12 new ballistic missile submarines at $6.5 billion each while also paying for the full array of surface ships it has on its wish list.  Using the gimmick of creating a separate “sea-based deterrence fund” will not solve this problem.

As for the Army, its plan to maintain and equip 450,000 active duty troops is not fully funded in the Pentagon’s current five-year budget plan.  The Pentagon will need to come up with tens of billions of additional dollars just to meet this target.

The Pentagon can begin to solve the mismatch between its plans and resources by scaling back wasteful and unnecessary programs.

First, the Navy should reconsider its plans to build 12 ballistic missile submarines.  As a recent report by the Arms Control Association has noted, eight ships with more warheads per missile could maintain the same number of deliverable weapons as 12 submarines could, at a cost savings of $16 billion over the next decade.

For its part, the Air Force should scale back the size of the F-35 program and fill in any short-term gaps with upgraded F-16s and F-18s.  Even if it were to meet all of its ambitious performance goals – an unlikely outcome — the F-35 has severe limitations as a combination bomber, fighter and close air support aircraft. It’s just not worth the hundreds of billions of dollars the Air Force, Navy and Marines are planning to pour into their respective versions of the plane.

As for the Army, rather than planning on a force of 450,000 that may be unsustainable, it should assume a smaller force in the area of 390,000 to 420,000.  Nothing on the current security agenda – from the war on Islamic State to responding to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine – calls for large scale troop deployments of the kind that were carried out at the peak of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill in the next few years, the days of hefty annual increases in Pentagon spending are over.  The Pentagon would be well-advised to take this reality into account and plan accordingly.

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

via Still need budget discipline at the Pentagon | The Hill.