Tag: defense department

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.

Sequestration Will Not Make the United States Less Safe

Will sequestration undermine U.S. national security? Hardly. Today, the Cato Institute released a new infographic putting these minor cuts in perspective.

Military spending will remain at roughly 2006 levels—$603 billion, higher than peak U.S. spending during the Cold War. Meanwhile, we live in a safer world. The Soviet Union has been dead for more than two decades; no other nation, or combination of nations, has emerged since that can pose a comparable threat. We should have a defense budget that reflects this reality.

To be clear, sequestration was no one’s first choice. But the alternative—ever-increasing military spending detached from a legitimate debate over strategy—is worse. We should have had such a debate, one over the roles and missions of the U.S. military, long before this day of reckoning. And politicians could have pursued serious proposals to prudently reduce military spending. Instead, they chose the easy way out, avoiding difficult decisions that would have allowed for smarter cuts.

Until now, there have been few constraints on Washington’s ability to spend what it pleases on the military. As my colleagues Benjamin Friedman and Justin Logan put it, Americans “buy defense like rich people shop, ignoring the balances of costs and benefits.”

Policymakers can’t postpone the tradeoffs forever, especially when the public has grown increasingly weary of foreign entanglements. If forced to choose between higher taxes, less military spending, or lower domestic spending, in order to balance the budget, the military fares least well, with solid pluralities favoring cuts in military spending over cuts in other programs.

Which is why it is so important to get the foreign policy debate right. If we are going to give our military less, we need to think about asking it to do less.

A number of experts have done that, rethinking the military’s purpose, and documenting the savings that would flow from a more modest foreign policy. The sequester is a first step, albeit an imperfect one, that could finally compel policymakers to do the same.

Download and share this infographic on your blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

Senate Report Slams Nation-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes:

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]

U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.” Ironically, “proper planning” is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.

While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there’s a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.

The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, “Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance.” [Emphasis added]

Indeed, complaints about America’s presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, “building local capacity.” As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back, “US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, “Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency.”

Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report:

Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.

Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.

So, who’s at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community’s determination to “end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country.” We’ve set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.

With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we’ll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s Haiti.

Deficit Reduction Commission Says Military Spending Can and Must be Cut

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission’s report is out and they have wisely kept military spending on the table. Having not seen the accompanying list of specific cuts, it seems that rather than micromanage DoD’s decisions with respect to which weapons systems to cut or keep, the commissioners have laid down a different marker: find the cuts that make sense, but understand that the business-as-usual of the past decade is over.

The report fixes on a number of spending cuts and reforms that Benjamin Friedman and I call for in the Cato Policy Analysis “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint” including cuts to the civilian workforce (see recommendation 1.10.4). They also hold fast to the proposition that all spending must be on the table, and reject out of hand the notion that military spending must be held sacrosanct. This is bad news for the “defending defense” crowd.

I am not going to comment on the Commission’s other proposals with respect to taxes, social security, health care, etc.  As for specific military spending cuts, this report is less detailed than the preliminary report issued a few weeks ago by Co-chairs Bowles and Simpson. It is appropriate, however, to task the Department of Defense with identifying additional savings (as they do in recommendation 1.11). Responsible cuts can be made if the Pentagon and the White House adopt a strategy of restraint, one that husbands American resources, focuses on a few core missions vital to U.S. national security, and requires other countries to take primary responsibility for their defense.

More on Phony Defense Spending Cuts

On Saturday the Washington Post published a letter I wrote chastising their editorialists for inventing defense budget cuts:

The Aug. 12 editorial “Mr. Gates’s rough cuts” and David S. Broder’s Aug. 12 column, “Gates’s budget warning shot,” applauded the defense secretary for his plans to cut spending even though the plans will do no such thing. As Mr. Broder wrote, Mr. Gates proposed closing the U.S. Joint Forces Command and shedding contractors and generals in the Pentagon’s employ. But neither piece noted that these proposals are part of a plan to shift some Pentagon spending from administration to force structure – not to cut total spending.

The impetus for the cost-shifting plan is the White House’s reluctance to increase Pentagon spending by more than 1 percent above inflation for the next few years. Rapid growth in procurement and personnel spending makes that increase insufficient to cover the military’s programmatic costs.

Bloated administrative overhead is a good place to find funds for that end. But taxpayers gain nothing.

Mr. Gates has requested substantial increases in defense spending every year that he has been secretary. He opposes spending cuts, even after the wars end, even though the United States now spends more on defense than at any time during the Cold War, adjusting for inflation. He openly hopes that these proposals to heighten administrative efficiency deflect pressure to cut spending. By pretending that these changes do so, The Post helps shield Pentagon spending from scrutiny.

The point is straightforward: Stop confusing reforms explicitly intended to prevent spending cuts with real spending cuts.

The Post, however, repeated the error that my letter complained about in the title they gave it both online (“Will the defense cuts do what Robert Gates says they will?”) and in the actual newspaper (“Scrutinizing Mr. Gates’s Defense Budget Cuts”). The editor has yet to respond to my email noting the irony.

I wrote more on the media’s failure to portray these reforms accurately for the National Interest’s new Skeptics blog. (Chris Preble and I have already discussed this topic here.)

The Post’s editorial page typifies the fawning coverage that the Washington commentariat gives Gates.  He has a knack for getting even otherwise discerning analysts to portray him as a pragmatist/ realist/ conservative even as he asks Congress to increase a defense budget that is already larger than at any point during the Cold War and advocates endless nation-building warfare in Afghanistan. The keys to his success, I say, are (a) appearing moderate in contrast to the rest of the foreign policy elites in his party, which is easy, (b) skillful management that distracts people from his embrace of policies that are not realistic, pragmatic, or conservative, and (c) eloquently saying things that contradict his actions.

Fareed Zakaria’s latest column, for example, asserts that the only two conservatives in Washington are Gates and the portrait of Eisenhower hanging in his office. Like many, Zakaria is taken with Gates’ recent speech at the Eisenhower library, which praised Ike for restraining defense spending and avoiding intervention in Vietnam. It was such a good speech that you can almost forgive those that fail to note the irony of Gates’ sounding like someone proposing defense cuts and exiting Afghanistan.