THE BLOG
05/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spend More Wisely on National Security

By Lt. Gen. Robert Gard and Travis Sharp

As the U.S. government spends hundreds of billions of dollars to create jobs and revive the American economy, vigilance is required to make sure that our money is spent effectively. Yet stimulus funds are not the only massive government expenditure in need of scrutiny and oversight. At over $500 billion per year, today's Pentagon budget is larger in inflation-adjusted terms than at any time since World War II. Some say the country is spending what it must to protect itself in dangerous times. But this is simply false.

In today's disastrous economic climate, the U.S. government desperately needs to prioritize its top national security objectives and realign spending accordingly. In order to revitalize underfunded competencies, such as for military personnel and foreign assistance, Congress must stop recklessly pumping taxpayer dollars into weapons systems unneeded for the foreseeable future.

This is surely a controversial position when there are thousands of defense industry jobs at stake. Yet the United States cannot permit expensive high-tech weaponry to be justified as employment projects when these systems are strategically unnecessary and divert scarce resources from more essential programs that better defend the nation's security. Moreover, due to the long time required to invest in and build planes and ships, funding already approved by Congress will continue to flow into weapons programs even if the programs are cut or canceled this year.

During the Bush administration, annual spending on big-ticket weapons programs increased by 160 percent, from $66 billion in 2000 to over $170 billion in 2008. Some of these funds paid for badly-needed equipment such as mine resistant vehicles that protect against roadside bombs. Much of this money, however, was wasted on weapons systems that ran way over budget, years behind schedule, and aren't even being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the chronic lack of investment in non-military foreign policy tools led the American Academy of Diplomacy to conclude last year that the State Department faces a crisis in resources that "cannot continue without serious damage to our vital interests."

A typical example of Pentagon waste is something known as Future Imagery Architecture. Before it was canceled, this satellite program violated every principle of responsible development and procurement. The contractor proposed a technologically risky design with an unrealistic budget. The Pentagon bit on the low-balled estimate. Then Congress failed to exercise oversight to ensure that money was being spent productively. Before it was all said and done, American taxpayers had invested at least four billion dollars in a system that never got off the ground. That money would have paid for a year's worth of health care for one million Americans.

The Obama administration's new budget proposal seeks to stop this type of waste. It will shift Pentagon spending toward increased support for U.S. troops and away from weapons systems designed to combat another superpower sometime in the distant future. President Obama's budget provides a 2.9 percent pay raise for men and women in uniform, a relatively small benefit they so richly deserve. The budget also accelerates planned increases in the size of the Army and Marine Corps. By paying for more Soldiers and Marines, the Obama administration hopes to alleviate stress on the more than 1.8 million service members that have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001.

To pay for these badly needed personnel benefits, the Obama administration will invest only in weapons programs that are necessary to keep us safe and that help our troops accomplish their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama does not believe in pandering to the military-industrial-Congressional complex. "I recognize the real choice between investments that are designed to keep the American people safe" - such as for military personnel - "and those that are designed to make a defense contractor rich," President Obama said in March.

To help stop Pentagon pork projects, President Obama is relying on his onetime political opponent, Senator John McCain. President Obama has endorsed a new bill introduced by Senators McCain and Carl Levin that would impose restraints on problematic weapons systems that continually exceed their budgets and schedules. The goal of this reform effort obviously is not to eliminate defense industry jobs, but to make sure that the United States needs and can afford the weapons that are being produced.

During rocky economic times and in a dangerous and unpredictable world, Congress must make tough choices about all types of spending. The Pentagon budget no longer should get special treatment. Wise investments in all elements of U.S. national security should trump pork-barrel weapons spending undertaken by members of Congress solely for political benefit.

Robert Gard, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former president of both National Defense University and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, is chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where Travis Sharp is a military policy analyst.