When Leon Panetta takes the helm at the Defense Department tomorrow, he will be facing difficult choices about the US military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. But an equally pressing — and potentially even more intractable — problem is the Pentagon’s budget and spending. Outgoing secretary Robert Gates was good at paying lip service to the need to control spending; he noted recently that “the United States should spend as much as necessary on national defense, but not one penny more.’’ But the department’s baseline budget has risen every year since Gates took over — from $450 billion to more than $550 billion four years later. This year alone, the Pentagon is seeking a 3.4 percent increase from its 2010 budget.
It’s not just the wars; they represent less than 30 percent of the Pentagon’s enormous budget request. In the context of other government spending, the Pentagon is a behemoth. For every $100 of government discretionary spending, over $30 goes to non-war defense expenditures. The scope is overwhelming; the need for more than piecemeal cuts of failed systems is urgent.
Gates recently claimed that the Pentagon has already cut $300 billion, but the math suggests otherwise. That money came from programs already scheduled to be terminated. The savings were simply put into other military priorities. After noting that the Navy’s 11 carrier battle groups were excessive, Gates refused to eliminate a single one.
Panetta will need to take a more disciplined and systemic look at the budget. There is no shortage of advice from influential think tanks and independent studies, including last year’s report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, a bipartisan group convened by Representative Barney Frank. Their recommendations would trim $960 billion between 2011 and 2020, if only the Pentagon would act on them.
Cutting the number of deployed nuclear weapons by half — to 1,000 warheads — is consistent with a reduced emphasis on nuclear warfare and the efforts of arms control advocates. This move alone would save over $100 billion over 10 years. Reducing conventional forces by 50,000, which would still leave 100,000 personnel deployed in Europe and Asia, is more realistic force structure. Cancelling just a few systems that are neither cost-effective nor essential would save more. The MV-22 Osprey and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle are long on trouble, and short on capability. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office both have proposed changes to support efforts, such as maintenance, supply, and infrastructure, that could save $100 billion in the next decade.
All this could be accomplished without compromising national security. Panetta needs to push back on the political forces that claim any cuts make the nation vulnerable to various enemies. The deficit is a much greater security risk.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon remains the largest federal agency that simply cannot pass an independent auditor test; when subjected to the normal bookkeeping procedures, it cannot, with any accuracy, track spending, fraud, waste, or redundancy. It has given itself a September 2017 deadline for audit “readiness.’’ That’s not soon enough. Panetta, who, as the former head of the Office of Management and Budget, has a reputation as a rigorous fighter for fiscal discipline. He will need to get the Pentagon’s house in order on day one.