This week’s deal on the federal budget overfunds the Pentagon, even as it holds fast to budget gimmicks that will make it difficult to hold the department accountable for how it spends taxpayer dollars.
If the deal makes it through the House of Representatives and is signed by the president, the Pentagon will get over $600 billion in fiscal year 2016, an increase of more than $30 billion from 2015. The bulk of the increase will come from lifting the caps on Pentagon spending that were established by the Budget Control Act of 2011, but billions more will come from bumping up the president’s already bloated request for the Pentagon’s favorite slush fund, known formally as the Overseas Contingency Operations account.
Why is the funding level set out for the Pentagon in the new budget deal too much? Let’s start with the slush fund. It will get over $58 billion, to, in theory, fund the wars against the Islamic State group and in Afghanistan. But the president’s request for the war on Islamic State group was just $5.3 billion for next year, or less than 10 percent of the war budget.
There are other smaller items in the war budget, like the European Reassurance Initiative that was cobbled together to address fears provoked by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. But that proposal comes in at well under $1 billion.
Even if the Obama administration takes the ill-advised step of keeping 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the cost of that war won’t come close to consuming the $40 billion-plus that remains in the slush fund after the war on the Islamic State group and other smaller items are accounted for. So what is all that other money for? If past experience is any indication, the Pentagon will try to use it to pay for equipment and activities that have nothing to do with fighting wars, from aircraft that didn’t fit into the U.S. Air Force’s regular budget to army modernization. This is no way to craft a budget.
The problem goes beyond the use of the war budget as an all-purpose slush fund. As noted above, the top-line number for Pentagon spending is also too high. There are tens of billions in wasteful expenditures that should be eliminated before the Pentagon gets a raise.
Candidates for cuts or spending reductions include the massive plan to build a new generation of nuclear bombs and delivery vehicles, from a new cruise missile and roughly $100 billion for new ballistic missile submarines. A study by the Arms Control Association has demonstrated that a more restrained approach to nuclear modernization could save $70 billion over a 10-year period. And that’s not even counting the billions more that could be saved by suspending plans to build pricey and unneeded facilities for the design and production of nuclear weapons.
The F-35 aircraft program – the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon – can also be a source of savings. The F-35 continues to be plagued by technical problems. More importantly, as a report by the National Security Network has noted, even if it performs a proposed, the F-35 will be an inferior aircraft that “will find itself outmaneuvered, outgunned, out of range, and visible to enemy sensors.” Does that sound like a program that is worth spending over $1 trillion on over its lifetime?
Finally, there is much that can be done to trim the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. In particular, the department’s use of service contractors should be carefully scrutinized. The department isn’t even sure how many of these contractors it employs, but it spends an estimated $200 billion on them. An analysis by the Project on Government Oversight suggests that a 15 percent cut in service contractors could save over $20 billion per year.
The Pentagon doesn’t deserve more money until it can show that it is using the hundreds of billions of dollars it already has responsibly. And Congress shouldn’t sit still for the continued abuse of the war budget. We can provide for our security for tens of billions of dollars less than the amount put forward in the new budget deal. Will the Pentagon get away with it, or will Congress make a last minute attempt to put it on a realistic budget?