By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon could save double the amount of cuts mandated under sequestration and avoid eroding its combat power, says a report released Monday.
The Washington-based Stimson Center projects the Defense Department could trim its planned spending by almost $1 trillion over the next 10 years by making a list of accounting, personnel and contracting changes.
If an ample number of such largely administrative changes — often called “efficiencies” — were enacted, the military could avoid “cutting essential combat capabilities,” the think tank said.
By contrast, military brass say they already have canceled a slew of training activities and intend to put off or cancel planned maintenance on aircraft, ships and other combat platforms. And DoD civilian contractors are still waiting to find out if up to 800,000 of their ranks will be furloughed in coming weeks.
The cumulative effect of just the first $42 billion part of sequestration’s decade-spanning $500 billion cut to planned military spending, officials say, is a military that soon will be less ready to respond to global crises — or even to go to war.
“Before cuts are made to military readiness, force structure, or needed weapons, some of the changes like those in this report should be implemented,” states the Stimson study. “If the United States is to have the best defense possible, it must spend its defense dollars in the most effective and efficient ways possible.”
Barry Blechman, a Stimson co-founder and distinguished fellow who helped craft the report said “if only 20 percent of the reductions we’ve listed — amounting to $200 billion over 10 years — are enacted, it would greatly relieve pressures on needed military capabilities.”
He added that half of the nearly $1 trillion in cuts Stimson sees would come from “a better use of manpower.”
“Now, that cannot be done overnight,” Blechman said. “But it can be done … over a few years, and save a lot of money.”
Stimson recommends, among other things, changes in how the Pentagon buys major weapon systems. The think tank says the department needs to reform how its “contracts are constructed,” and calls for acquisition workforce management changes. What’s more it calls for changes in how requirements for weapon systems are crafted.
Matthew Leatherman, an analyst at the Stimson Center who was one of the report’s authors, says the Pentagon’s acquisition is “not so much broken.” Rather, he said during a Monday event to unveil the report, “it’s just not built for efficiency.”
For instance, the process should be tweaked to differentiate between buying “an IT system and a tank,” Leatherman said.
“Before cuts are made to military readiness, force structure, or needed weapons, some of the changes like those in this report should be implemented,” states the study. “If the United States is to have the best defense possible, it must spend its defense dollars in the most effective and efficient ways possible.”
Many of the report’s recommendations have been proposed by other think tanks and other study groups for many years. But few have been implemented, even as Pentagon officials and lawmakers warn military personnel and weapon system costs have skyrocketed.
Its authors acknowledged there will be ample resistance to the report’s recommendations — from within the Pentagon, the individual services, industry and Congress.
“Reform is hard,” Leatherman said. “It’s not going to be easy to change [the] status quo.”
“What we expect is incremental reform,” Leatherman said.
One problem is there are too few contracting specialists employed by the military, Dave Oliver, a former senior Pentagon official and EADS North America executive, said during the event.
While most of the weapon programs that are far over budget and years behind schedule are managed by the military services, Oliver placed the blame for those — and the military’s myriad other budget-related problems — on other aspects of American society.
For instance, he dubbed the four military services as “wholesome and good.”
The services are merely “working for their country,” Oliver said, seeming to brand them above much blame. That’s because only the services truly understand combat, combat needs, “algorithms” of their own troubled weapons programs and sound management.
Part of the blame goes to the average American, he said, who is “focused on RVs and potatoes” but doesn’t give much thought to “how much he wants to spend on defense.”
Oliver cast the military as having been forced into a situation in which it is too cut off from the rest of American society. Therefore, he said, the services automatically label any call for a reduction in their annual budgets “a personal attack.”
Still, Oliver pointed to some problems with the military’s internal problems that are ripe for reform, changes he says would — when added together — produce ample ways to trim Pentagon spending.
Oliver noted if Pratt & Whitney, a firm that makes aircraft engines for the military and commercial airlines, delivered a faulty engine to a private company, Pratt would almost always pay to have the power plant shipped back and fixed. If Pratt delivered a bad engine to the Navy or Air Force, however, the service would foot both bills.
That shows some DoD practices should be “brought into the 21st century,” Oliver said.
Finally, Oliver said only 16 percent of the U.S. military force actually “fights.” There should be an effort to trim planned spending within the remaining 84 percent, he said.