The budget deal agreed to by Congress and the White House is a recipe for waste, fraud, and abuse that will likely do more harm than good to the security of America and its allies.
At $738 billion for Fiscal Year 2020 and $740 billion for Fiscal Year 2021, the agreement pushes spending on the Pentagon and work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy to historic levels: higher than the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, and nearly twice the Cold War average. This is all the more astonishing when one considers that US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been drawn down dramatically, from 180,000 in 2010 to about 20,000 now. Only at the Pentagon could less money for its primary activity translate into more money for the department.
If there is a readiness or modernization issue it is not because the Pentagon hasn’t been given ample taxpayer money – it’s because the department’s bureaucracy has not been spending that taxpayer money effectively.
What is ultimately needed is a more disciplined defense strategy that focuses on the most urgent challenges we face, many of which are not military in nature. But truth be told, even before there is a major shift in US strategy, there is plenty of room to reduce the Pentagon budget. The Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force – a group that includes former Pentagon officials, military officers, White House budget officials, and Congressional budget analysts – has outlined a plan that could save at least $1.2 trillion from projected Pentagon budgets over the next ten years. Nearly one-quarter of that total comes from eliminating waste and bureaucracy, from reducing the department’s use of private contractors to junking the Trump administration’s proposal for a Space Force.
Billions more could be saved by implementing a system of fair pricing at the Pentagon, which has routinely overpaid companies like TransDigm for spare parts, like the case in which the department paid $5,474 for a motor rotor that should have cost $654. Another company, Anham LLC, charged $71 for a pin that should have cost less than a nickel. The Project on Government Oversight has put together a series of proposals to fix this problem, saving precious taxpayer dollars in the process.
Meanwhile, ardent advocates of ever-higher Pentagon budgets have suggested that the new budget numbers will only begin to address the alleged readiness crisis plaguing the US military due to “crippling” budget cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). This line of argument is wrong for many reasons, chief among them that the Pentagon is projected to get over $1 trillion more during the decade covered by the BCA than in the prior ten years, when spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their highest levels. In short, the Pentagon did very well under the BCA, despite the cries of poverty from Pentagon budget boosters on Capitol Hill. This suggests that the critics – citing threats to readiness and modernization – have greatly overstated their case. If there is a readiness or modernization issue it is not because the Pentagon hasn’t been given ample taxpayer money – it’s because the department’s bureaucracy has not been spending that taxpayer money effectively.
Throwing more money at the Pentagon without imposing budget discipline will increase waste, not combat capability. It’s time for policymakers and the public alike to realize that when it comes to the Pentagon, more money doesn’t necessarily buy more safety or security.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.