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A World-Class Pentagon Budget

by WS Editors

Jan 1, 2009 | Economy, Foreign Policy


“THE NEW ADMINISTRATION WILL TAKE OFFICE in January 2009, inheriting a budget for the Department of Defense that will exceed $600 billion per year, roughly equal to the rest of the world. Because we are not facing the possibility of armed conflict with the rest of the world put together, it’s clear that some adjustment is appropriate.”

We have addressed the metastasizing military budget in these pages in the past, even juxtaposing U.S. military spending with the defense spending of “the rest of the world put together.” (See theWashington SpectatorMarch 1, 2008.) Yet in the two wryly understated sentences quoted above, retired Air Force Colonel Chet Richards makes the argument as well as it can be made.

Colonel Richards’s budget figures are more understated than his prose. He’s not out to oversell his argument, so he sticks to defense appropriations. The Office of Management and Budget’s calculation of “total defense spending” for fiscal year 2009 includes categories such as defense programs at the U.S. Department of Energy, the budget of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and defense-related interest on the national debt. Grand total: $863.7 billion.

But there’s more. The $863.7 billion doesn’t include a realistic accounting for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the $70 billion supplemental appropriation Congress approved in 2008 will only keep American boots on the ground for three or four months in 2009. Add the additional $100 billion that will be required even if President Obama begins to draw down troop levels in Iraq, and you get close to $1 trillion.

Now consider the military expenditures of the nations we consider strategic adversaries. China spends $122 billion on defense; Russia spends $70 billion.

Rogue states? Iran spends $7.1 billion. North Korea, $5 billion. The neighbor that represents such a threat that our half-century-old blockade denies it most American food aid and pharmaceuticals spends $1.6 billion on its military, even if no one who is not wearing a tinfoil hat or writing for the Weekly Standard would argue that Cuba represents a threat to the United States.

Those are our “enemies.” We also have friends.

Among the larger European Union nations we presume would be our allies in a war, the U.K. spent €47.31 billion; France, €43.46 billion; Germany, €30.36 billion; Italy, €26.83 billion; and Spain, €11.51 billion. Of the remaining twenty-one E.U. states whose 2006 budgets were analyzed by the Center for Defense Information, none had defense budgets that made it into double digits. In U.S. dollars that’s a total of $197.2 billion that complements U.S. defense spending.

So, yes, some adjustment is appropriate. And necessary. If the Obama administration is to have half a chance of implementing half of its agenda, one of very few places to find the money to do so is in the bloated military budget.

IN FROM THE COLD—Colonel Richards makes his argument in a book just released by the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C., research shop focused on military spending, policies, and weapons systems. The analysis and recommendations included in America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress extend beyond the compelling case the book makes for cutting the defense budget. Thirteen retired military officers and civilian defense analysts urge the new president and Congress to drag a military establishment mired in cold war strategies, structures, and weapons into a world in which no nation represents an existential threat to the United States.

The authors also make the case for scrapping military hardware and weapons systems (some still coming on line) that became obsolete when the Soviet Union collapsed. All in all, they make a compelling case that the nation’s defense can be both cheaper and better. Using their figures and other sources, we will here begin to make the case for cheaper. And over the next year, as the Obama administration and a new Congress grapple with the guns or butter economic equation, we will be watching the guns.

America’s Defense Meltdown is dense and factual, not exactly recreational reading. Yet if you’re shopping for a seasonal gift for your Congressional representative or senator, or for that special friend who just nailed down a job in the Obama administration, there’s probably not a more timely gift.

THE 25 PERCENT SOLUTION?—In October, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) told theStandard-Times in New Bedford that Congress should consider cutting the defense budget by 25 percent. “We don’t need all those fancy new weapons.” Frank said.

In response, Senator John Warner (R-VA) cut a radio ad for the McCain-Palin campaign, warning of the harm Frank’s defense budget cuts would visit upon Virginia’s economy. Sarah Palin jumped on Frank’s comment: “Already, plans are underway by Democrat House Finance Committee [sic] Chairman Barney Frank to cut defense spending by 25 percent.” McCain warned that Barney Frank wants to cut defense spending by 25 percent, “even with our troops engaged in two wars, and with a force in need of rebuilding…”

House Armed Services Committee ranking minority member Duncan Hunter (R-CA) railed about Frank’s “left-wing assault on America’s national defense, which would be disastrous for America’s troops.” House Republicans put out a joint statement calling Frank’s proposed budget cut “reckless,” “grossly irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

Much of this was campaign hoo-hahing by Republicans who knew that McCain and Palin were toast. But behind the implied argument that Barney Frank was skating on the edge of treason is an “absolute real growth” imperative among Congressional Republicans (and many Democrats) regarding defense spending. The mere suggestion of reducing defense spending unhinges many members of Congress. Mention 25 percent and you induce cold sweats—particularly among members whose districts or states are home to defense contractors.

More on the relations between defense contractors and Congress to follow, but first a few observations regarding Representative Frank’s comment.

As the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank is one of the most powerful members of Congress. The $700 billion-plus bailout legislation that recently moved through Congress began in the Financial Services Committee. But Frank has nothing to do with defense appropriations—even if he understands that you can’t bail out the finance industry, pass a stimulus bill, and spend 4 percent of gross domestic product on the military. And after saying that the nation doesn’t “need all those fancy weapons,” Frank added a line his critics chose to ignore. “I think there needs to be additional review,” he said.

How crazy a notion is a 25 percent budget cut? Defense spending in 2001 was $305 billion.

ADDITIONAL REVIEW OF THE F-22—Understanding “additional review” of fancy weapons requires a quick tutorial on military procurement. Thomas Christie, a military analyst who retired from the Pentagon in 2005, describes two procurement tactics—”front-loading” and “political engineering.”

Front-loading is a defense contractor practice of selling big systems in advance by “downplaying costs and/or exaggerating benefits.” Congressional committee members who buy military hardware consider this “sell low and bill high” practice the cost of doing business. So the 27 percent in cost overruns that the Government Accountability Office found in seventy-two major weapons systems in 2007 can’t be called an accident.

Political engineering involves the creation of political safety nets by spreading multibillion-dollar projects among subcontractors who will disperse jobs, dollars, and profits among as many Congressional districts as possible.

Christie, who had a front-row seat while working on acquisition at the Pentagon, writes that contractors use these tactics to “pack the defense budget with weapons programs more appropriate to the economic needs of the contractors than to the military.”

In this context, the fight to save the F-22 fighter jet makes sense. The stealthy, high-performance aircraft, manufactured by Lockheed Martin (and an army of subcontractors) was a hot item in the 1980s, when it was designed to engage Soviet jets in high-altitude dogfights. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the F-22 became a winged white elephant. None of the planes in the fleet has ever flown a combat mission. Even the Bush administration wants to shoot down the F-22, which is of no use against the “asymmetrical adversaries” American troops are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Franklin C. Spinney, who spent thirty years in weapons procurement at the Pentagon, toldCongressional Quarterly that the need for the F-22 has “evaporated.”

The Air Force adjusted to the changing nature of war by reducing its F-22 shopping list from 383 to 183 planes. The New York Times reports that F-22 production involves 1,000 parts suppliers in 44 states. So the plane’s constituency, beyond defense contractors and the bells-and-whistles guys at the Pentagon, can be found in the Congress. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates was slow to spend the $140 million Congress appropriated to keep the plane in production until Barack Obama is sworn in, the F-22 Caucus went looking for him.

House Armed Services chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) wrote to Gates, demanding that he spend the money appropriated by the Congress. Ranking Republican Duncan Hunter signed on with Skelton, as did committee members Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) and Jim Saxton (R-NJ).

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England received similar letters from Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), John Thune (R-SD), Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and James Inhofe (R-OK), according to Defense News.

Under secretary of Defense John Young was summoned to a hastily scheduled House Armed Services subcommittee meeting on November 19 to answer the questions of members angry about lagging F-22 funding. Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey’s comments capture the mood of the hearing.


REP. GINGREY: So let me just say, Mr. Young, in not following the law and the intent of this Congress, under what authority are you acting? Under what authority are you acting? Is it up to you to decide which laws the department will follow and which they will flout? Why are you substituting your will for the will of Congress that was signed into law by the president? You know, if you can explain that to this committee and this subcommittee, I’m sure that would be very enlightening to these members…

What you are doing, inadvertently—I’m not accusing you of doing it intentionally—but inadvertently, you’re fostering the shut down of this program, and I think that could be disastrous for the defense of this nation.

Lockheed’s F-22 assembly plant is located in Gingrey’s district.

Funding for the F-22 will be one of the first decisions President Obama and Bob Gates, his holdover defense secretary, make after January 20. The plane has already run up $30 billion in cost overruns.

Bob Gates might consider a procurement precedent established by a disgraced vice president whom many at the Pentagon still consider one of the best secretaries of defense to hold the position since World War II. When Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney learned that the Navy’s A-12 fighter jet was $1 billion over budget and 18 months behind schedule, he canceled the program and fired the vice admiral overseeing it. He also killed the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber—designed to penetrate Soviet radar—by cutting production from 132 to 20.

The Soviet Union is still gone. Yet the F-22 is still flying. The potential saving, if the new president decides to pull the plug, would be an immediate $10 billion. The profligate shoppers at the Pentagon and their enablers on Capitol Hill would get the message.

FOUR ON THE FLOOR—If Barney Frank was joking when he told Jack Murtha that the House Financial Services Committee finally reported out a bill almost as big as the annual defense appropriation, the subject of Frank’s humor is no joke. The $700 billion-plus check that Congress wrote to bail out financial institutions comes close to matching total annual defense spending.

Last February I sat in on a House Armed Services Committee review of the Department of Defense’s 2009 budget. Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Admiral Michael Mullen and Defense Secretary Gates testified at a hearing characterized by the obsequiousness that constitutionally elected members of the First Branch of government can’t seem to avoid when confronted by admirals or generals.

Gates began running the numbers and reassuring committee members that they were getting a bang for their buck: base budget about 3.4 percent of GDP; war costs bump it up to about 4 percent, but still a significantly lower percentage of our national treasure than during any of the wars that we fought in the 20th . . . .

South Carolina Democrat John Spratt stopped the defense secretary. “Seven hundred billion is 5 percent,” Spratt said.

Gates agreed and went on to say there are two things that are most important to him in considering defense budgets: “absolute growth and predictability.” That would be absolute growth beyond 5 percent of GDP?

Later in the hearing, Gates softened his position and said he considered 4 percent a reasonable floor for defense spending. Admiral Mullen also made the 4 percent argument.

Arizona Republican Trent Franks, a junior member on the committee, drafted legislation to establish 4 percent of our annual gross domestic product as a defense-spending baseline. North Carolina Republican Elizabeth Dole filed a similar bill in the Senate. Franks is an ideologue and lightweight member of the minority party. Dole lost her seat in November. Their 4 percent bill is as dead as Liddy Dole’s political career.

Mullen’s pitch for a 4 percent floor (he never mentions ceilings) took place eight months before Congress handed over the equivalent of 5 percent of GDP to failing financial institutions. Yet the admiral is still at the helm, showing no sign that he intends to trim his sails. At a December 8 “all hands” meeting with the troops at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, Mullen said the financial crisis will affect the military and warned everyone to tighten their belts. He said that defense spending has more than doubled, from $350 billion in 2000, and suggested there is no turning back.

Current military spending is 4.3 percent of GDP, Mullen said, ignoring the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars. “Given these very challenging times,” he said, the country needs a floor of about 4 percent.

In Europe, only the U.K., at 2.5 percent, and France, at 2.43 percent, spend more than 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. 

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