By William Hartung
The Pentagon has more than enough funding to protect the country, but you would never know it if you listened to the cries for more coming from key members of Congress and hawkish D.C. think tanks.
On Capitol Hill the chairs of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), are calling for a Pentagon budget that exceeds the amounts allowed under current law by over $50 billion. And a recent letter organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative operation that aggressively promoted our ill-advised and costly 2003 intervention in Iraq, asks House and Senate leaders to consider sharp increases for the Department of Defense as well. It is important to note that these substantial proposed increases in Pentagon spending are arbitrary numbers cherry-picked from past Pentagon five-year plans, not careful assessments of current defense needs.
The advocates of higher Pentagon budgets ignore the fact that the nearly half a trillion dollars in the department’s current base budget is one of the highest amounts on record. Nor do they acknowledge that the war budget, known in Washington as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, has long been operating as a slush fund to pay for activities and projects that have nothing to do with current conflicts. The Pentagon has plenty of money to work with.
We don’t need more spending at the Pentagon. We need more spending discipline. In a department that employs over 800,000 civilians and 700,000 private contractors, there is room to cut tens of billions of dollars in expenditures without undermining our defenses. In fact, a more streamlined, efficient, and agile Pentagon bureaucracy would make us stronger.
Recent proposals to reform military compensation — including steps to rein in the Pentagon’s burgeoning health care costs — would save tens of billions more. And scaling back overpriced, poorly performing weapons systems like the F-35 combat aircraft and the littoral combat ship would yield substantial savings that could be spent on more urgent priorities like training and maintenance, with plenty left over for other purposes.
Pentagon spending boosters have either resisted the kinds of changes outlined above or understated their budgetary impact. Their ultimate argument is that we are a country at war, so Pentagon spending must go up. But they fail to note that the war against ISIS and efforts to bolster European allies in the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine are already accounted for in this year’s proposed war budget. Furthermore, addressing these contingencies consumes only a fraction of existing expenditures. For example, at $5.3 billion, the funds allocated for fighting ISIS are only about 1 percent of the funding that will be available to the Pentagon under current law.
Not only is the Pentagon budget sufficient to address current challenges, but it has ample funding left over to invest in dealing with the threats of the future. The Department of Defense currently spends over $150 billion per year on procurement and research and development, more than any other country in the world spends on its entire military.
The real gap in Pentagon spending is the gap between the cost of a responsible budget focused on 21st-century threats and a wish list tied to an open-ended strategy. For example, the National Defense Panel, whose work is cited favorably by the Foreign Policy Initiative, argues that the United States could “plausibly be called upon to fight … on the Korean peninsula, in the East or South China Sea, South Asia, in the Middle East, the Trans-Sahel, Sub-Saharan Africa, in Europe, or elsewhere.” But a strategy that rules nothing out is not a strategy. It is a recipe for endless war.
A realistic strategy that addresses legitimate security challenges can be carried out without busting the budget caps that exist under current law. It’s just a matter of setting priorities within the available level of resources. The administration and Congress should focus on that goal, not on having a bidding war over who can throw more money at the Pentagon.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.