The Smart Way to Cut Pentagon Spending

Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy has an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal this morning (may be pay walled) that calls for cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget in a smart way, one that doesn’t hit training and readiness as hard as across-the-board cuts. She chooses to focus on reforming how the Pentagon procures goods and services, but that isn’t the only way to cut spending without undermining the nation’s security.

Early last month, I, along with scholars and analysts from nine other think tanks, including Flournoy’s own Center for a New American Security, signed a letter calling for reductions in excess base capacity, a smaller civilian work force, and changes in how pay and benefits are calculated for active-duty military. Some of those reforms would generate significant savings quickly, whereas Flournoy’s proposals might not.

Of course, the reason why Americans spend so much more on the military than any other country in the world is because policymakers in Washington ask U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marine to do a lot more than simply defend the United States. For example, a significant portion of U.S. so-called defense spending actually goes to defend other countries that could defend themselves. If the busy-bodies in Washington asked our military to do less (a popular proposition), Americans could spend less while still keeping faith with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America.

Still, it is a welcome sign that another Beltway insider has come forward with plans for actually improving how the Department of Defense spends the taxpayers’ money, as opposed to simply asking for more. But one passage in Flournoy’s article cries out for more attention. She points out at the beginning of her piece that:   

Reforming acquisition practices has long been a Defense Department aim. Since 1960, the U.S. government has commissioned at least 27 major studies on defense-acquisition reform, and more than 300 studies have been undertaken by nongovernment experts.

Still, the Defense Department rarely achieves the expected return on its investments. Most major weapons programs run over cost and over schedule, costing American taxpayers billions more while delivering less capability than planned.

Her article goes on to document a number of new and not-so-new ways to save money, but she never really addresses why past attempts have failed, or were never tried, nor why her ideas are likely to be adopted this time around.

I think the main reason why defense procurement reform is a perennial loser is because getting the biggest bang for the buck isn’t the primary concern for many people here in Washington. Military spending has always been treated as a jobs program, even though it isn’t a very efficient one. If the goal is to maximize employment in a particular weapons program, or at a given military facility, then we shouldn’t expect well-intended, reasonable proposals for increasing efficiency to ever become law.  

Put another way, unless we confront the mindset that treats military spending as different from other forms of federal spending–a bipartisan affliction, but one that is especially prevalent among Republican politicians and their overpaid consultants–then we are unlikely to ever see major changes in how the Pentagon does business. And that means that Americans will continue to spend more than we have to in order to keep the nation safe and secure.