Pentagon Cost Saving Plan Does Not Save

As Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates has submitted a bigger defense budget each year, in real terms. Early reporting is that fiscal year 2012 will be no exception; the current Pentagon plan is to increase spending by roughly one percent above inflation.

The press can’t get this straight. Last year, for example, Gates recommended canceling several weapons procurement programs to offset increased operational and personnel spending.  Much of Congress fought that shift, but the beef was about priorities, not total spending. Because people see the military budget as a collection of weapons programs, however, the media largely portrayed Gates as battling Congress to cut spending.

This year similar confusion abounds.

Still squeezed by rising costs in those accounts, the Secretary has asked the services to cut overhead to fund weapons and warfighters.  More tooth, less tail.  Good idea probably, but no savings for the taxpayer. Yet Fox writes: “Secretary Gates to Slash Pentagon Budget in Search of $10 Billion in Savings.” And MSNBC: “Gates: Urgent need to rein in defense costs.” Even CongressDaily makes the same mistake: “Pentagon maps out $100 billion cost savings plan.”

Because the plan does not lower spending, it is hard to see how it can be the model or “inspiration” for the Obama administration’s talk about actually doing so, by five percent, in other agencies, whatever the Washington Post tries to tell us.

Then we have the unfolding defense veto drama, with Gates cast as the fiscal prude and Congress the unrestrained villain. The reality is different of course. The Pentagon asked Congress for $113 billion in procurement funds for FY 2011, 6.5 percent more than last year, in real terms. The defense authorization committees, exercising a constitutional power, added half a billion for a back-up fighter engine, an addition amounting to roughly one thousandth of total defense spending. Gates and the White House threatened a veto.  The Washington Post wrote that Congress was trying to “override efforts by Secretary Gates to cut defense spending,” when his efforts actually went to containing its growth slightly. And they do not really bother to explain what makes the second engine (which the GAO said might save money) waste and every penny Gates wants a security requirement.

Deficits have increased political pressure to control defense spending. The way to control it is to control the objectives it serves, the wars we imagine fighting. The danger is that that political pressure gets misused on quixotic efforts to run the Pentagon more efficiently–acquisition reform, jihads against “waste, fraud, and abuse,” tantrums against pork, calls to audit the Pentagon (like trying to lose weight by buying a better scale) and other hardy perennials of defense reform.