New Letter to the Deficit Commission on Cutting Bloated Defense Spending

Saturday November 20th, 2010   •   Posted by Winslow Wheeler at 12:30pm PST   •  

The Honorable Erskine Bowles
National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
1650 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20504

Dear Mr. Bowles:

We are writing to you and other members of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform as individuals who have worked in national security affairs for decades for the Department of Defense, in the Armed Forces and for Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Our concern is the defense budget.

Similar to what your “Co-Chairs’ Proposal” said last week regarding Social Security and other issues, we do not believe that defense spending should be reduced to a bargaining chip in budget negotiations at the Deficit Commission. On the other hand, we do believe that the defense budget is dangerously bloated, giving rise to serious decay in our armed forces.

Weaker forces at higher costs (discussed below) are the result of many years of exploitation of defense spending for political purposes, dereliction of oversight duties, and gross mismanagement by the Pentagon, the White House and the Congress. There has been a fundamental absence of accountability, both that required by the Constitution and that which accompanies sound management.

With or without the work of the Deficit Commission, the central problems in our defenses need to be addressed as a matter of high priority. The Commission provides a historic opportunity to build the consensus to do so now. We urge you to consider the proposition that the decay of our forces cannot be reversed under growing defense budgets. Instead, it can, and should, be achieved at levels of defense spending even somewhat lower than those the Co-Chairs’ Proposal recommends.

To understand what is needed in the future, consider the mistakes of the past.

For example, over the last decade, the Navy budget received $293 billion more than the baseline of spending in 2000 anticipated (adjusted for inflation). Seen another way, the 2011 Navy’s “base” budget, which does not include spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is 44 percent higher than it was in 2000. Yet the size of the Navy’s combat fleet went down in this period, from 318 ships and submarines to 287�a decline of 10 percent. This is not a smaller, newer fleet; it is a smaller, older fleet�about four years older, on average, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It is also less ready to fight: for the past year the press has repeatedly reported on severe maintenance problems throughout the fleet, and Navy combat pilot training in the air has remained at historic lows.

The situation in the Air Force is worse. It received $320 billion more than the base budget levels anticipated in 2000 and increased by 2011 by 43 percent. During the same 2000-2011 period, the number of active and reserve fighter and bomber squadrons went from 146 to 72, a decline of 51 percent. According to CBO, our combat air fleet is now about nine years older than in 2000�an historic high average age of about 23 years. Fighter pilot in-air training hours today are one-half to one-third of what they were in the 1970s, an era not noted for high readiness.

The Army received a $297 billion budget plus-up, a 53 percent increase. In this case, the combat forces did increase; the number of brigade combat teams grew from 44 to 46, an increase of 5 percent. A 53 percent budget increase bought a 5 percent increase in combat forces. But CBO tells us that major Army equipment inventories are mostly older, and in 2006, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings and leaked a memo documenting historic lows in the readiness of active Army units. The analysis has not been publicly updated, but we should worry that it has gotten worse.

There is no mystery why the increased spending has led to shrinking, aging hardware inventories. New weapons systems cost three to ten times more to buy and operate than the weapons they are replacing. Even if their budgets could grow steadily at five percent per year (over and above inflation), the cost explosion in new weapons dooms the military services to being unable to buy as many weapons as they had�hence the shrinking hardware inventories. Because they can buy so few new planes, tanks or ships, they extend the life of the old ones�hence the aging.

At $707 billion, the defense budget is today higher in than it has ever been since the end of World War II, even when the effects of 65 years of inflation are removed. This spending level is unrelated to the military threat. During the Cold War, from 1948 to 1990, when we faced the sizeable forces of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, annual Pentagon spending averaged $440 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, (and that includes the effects of the Korean and Vietnam wars). Today, big spending advocates point to China, with a defense budget variously estimated at from $80 to $180 billion per year, as the future threat we must prepare against. But, if we add the highest available defense budget estimates for China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba and then double that sum, the Pentagon still spends more. As to the threat of terrorism, we almost certainly spend more in one day than al Qaeda, the Taliban and all their affiliates spend in an entire year. . . .

Click here to read the full letter�

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November 2010