THE BLOG

After the Shutdown, Don't Exempt the Pentagon

10/10/2013 07:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The fairest and quickest way to end America's short-term budget crisis is to pass a continuing resolution that funds the government, and to lift the debt ceiling so the government can borrow to pay the bills it has already incurred, with no strings attached. Anything less risks a sharp reduction in the quality of life of tens of millions of Americans, a major blow to an already fragile economy, and a steep decline in America's reputation in the world, where many people are scratching their heads and wondering how a nation that considers itself a global leader has gotten itself into this predicament.

But even as the current crisis plays itself out, key players are plotting their next moves. One intriguing development in this regard is the evolving position of the defense lobby. For example, although he is an opponent of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chair Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) has pointed out that House Republicans have already unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the law 40 times, and that it's time to move on to the business of crafting a long-term budget. I agree with McKeon on this point -- but that's where the agreement ends.

McKeon and his colleagues Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), chairs of key HASC subcommittees, want to put the Obamacare debate aside so they can get down to the business of striking a deal that will exempt the Pentagon from further budget cuts. They may or may not win that fight, but they are chomping at the bit to get back to it. But McKeon, Forbes and Turner ignore the fact that there is plenty of room to make sequester-level cuts in Pentagon spending while reshaping the U.S. military to meet our most urgent challenges.

A new report from the Stimson Center -- "Strategic Agility: Strong National Defense for Today's Global and Fiscal Realities" -- shows how the Pentagon can make the roughly $50 billion in cuts required by current law. It is the product of a 17-member Defense Advisory Committee that includes budget experts, former diplomats, and prominent retired military officers such as former vice chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright and Admiral Bill Owens, former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, and former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz.

An important assumption underpinning the Stimson approach is that the era of large scale, boots-on-the-ground conflicts is over. In the more measured words of the report, the strategy "would seek to avoid involvement in protracted ground wars anywhere in the world and, accordingly, place a lower priority on active ground and air forces that would support such large-scale and prolonged conflicts." The Stimson approach would also get the Pentagon out of the nation building business, and move security and economic assistance programs that have sprouted up inside the Pentagon back to civilian agencies such as the State Department and the Agency for International Development. In short, the Stimson plan seeks a more focused military that tries to do fewer things. It also aggressively cuts the bloat that has crept in during a decade in which Pentagon spending has nearly doubled in dollar terms.

The Stimson report suggests 27 actions that taken together would save $49.5 billion in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, $1.8 billion more than would be required by the sequester. They are divided into three rough categories: management reforms ($22.4 billion in savings), reductions in force structure ($21.4 billion in savings), and cuts in weapons procurement and R&D ($5.7 billion in savings). The largest savings come from reducing Army end strength by 40,000 ($11.9 billion); shifting low-end Air Force fighter planes into the reserves ($5.4 billion); reforming health benefits ($4.7 billion); cutting 58,000 Pentagon civilian employees ($4.7 billion); reducing the size of headquarters ($4.5 billion); and slowing down procurement of the F-35 combat aircraft ($4 billion). These six changes alone account for over two-thirds of the nearly $50 billion in savings generated by the Stimson plan.

The Stimson report also recommends saving money on expensive nuclear weapons programs by building fewer Trident ballistic missile submarines and eliminating one wing (150) of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). But there are plenty of places to look for further reductions in nuclear weapons spending. An article by Jon Wolfstahl in the current issue of Arms Control Today references a forthcoming report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies that estimates that the cost of operating and replacing the U.S. nuclear triad (bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched- ballistic-missiles) could be as high as $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

If anything, the Stimson plan is a conservative estimate of potential savings in Pentagon spending. The F-35 program is a case in point. An analysis by Nick Schwellenbach of the Center for Effective Government makes a strong case for not just slowing the F-35 program, but cancelling it altogether. In the short-to-medium term it could be replaced by upgraded F-16s (for the Air Force), F-18s (for the Navy), and proven A-10s for close air support. In the meantime separate programs could be started to produce next generation fighters for the Air Force and the Navy. The Congressional Budget Office has suggested that such an approach could save up to $78 billion during the lifetime of planned F-35 procurement.

In short, as the budget process proceeds, however fitfully, there is no reason let the Pentagon off the hook.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation books).