From the New York Times, April 19, 2011
In their budget-cutting zeal, Republicans are demanding harsh sacrifices from the country’s most vulnerable citizens. At the same, they are determined to leave one of the biggest areas of wasteful government spending untouched: the Pentagon budget.
The budget plan they pushed through the House this month would spend $7.5 trillion on the military over the next dozen years. And that does not include the cost of actual war-fighting. The country cannot afford to spend that much, and it doesn’t need to.
The $7.5 trillion was President Obama’s projection, which he has since lowered to $7.1 trillion. Saving $400 billion is better but still not enough, especially since it can be achieved merely by holding annual nonwar-related spending at its current swollen level, adjusted for inflation.
National security is a fundamental responsibility of government. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon has spent without limits and in some cases without sense. Annual budgets, adjusted for inflation, have grown by 50 percent in the past decade. And that is apart from the more than $1 trillion spent on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House and Congress must impose some rationality on this process. Here is a path that could save hundreds of billions of dollars more through 2024:
PERSONNEL Pay and benefits account for nearly half of the basic Pentagon budget. The size of the uniformed services should not be reduced, at least for now. The Pentagon’s civilian work force, currently 650,000, should be cut by up to 10 percent, saving more than $7 billion a year.
We in no way minimize the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. But after years of lagging far behind, military pay is now more than $5,000 a year higher than comparable civilian employment, more than $10,000 a year higher when special allowances and benefits are counted. Freezing noncombat pay for three years would save $3 billion per year. The formula for future increases should be adjusted to incorporate allowances and benefits, saving an additional $5 billion a year.
Another $4 billion to $6 billion annually could be saved by reasonable increases in annual health insurance premiums for military retirees of working age. Those premiums — currently $460 per family — have been frozen for the past 15 years while health care costs soared.
All told, these changes would save about $20 billion annually or more than $200 billion over the next 12 years.
FORCE STRUCTURE The Pentagon took too long to recognize that today’s wars make more intensive demands on the Army and Marines and less on the Navy and Air Force. Ground forces have been increased, but that needs to be paid for by corresponding reductions at sea and in the air. That shift has already begun but needs to go further. Another $1 billion to $2 billion a year could be saved by reducing the number of aircraft carrier groups from 11 to 10 and associated air wings from 10 to 9.
PROCUREMENT Twenty years after the cold war’s end, the Pentagon is addicted to hugely expensive weapons systems that are poorly suited to current and future military needs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates successfully pressed Congress to end production of the costly Air Force F-22. He now needs to cut way back on the far overbudget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Far fewer of these are needed to assure American dominance of the skies. Terminating the deeply troubled Marine Corps version of the F-35 and cutting back the Navy and Air Force versions by 50 percent would save $130 billion over the life of the program, with most of those savings achieved in the 2020s. Eliminating the Marine Corps’ costly and accident-prone V-22 Osprey vertical take off and landing aircraft would save another $10 billion to $12 billion. Further savings may be possible by scaling down future orders for the Virginia class nuclear attack submarine and reconsidering the newly vulnerable littoral combat ship.
For too long America’s military spending decisions have been insulated from serious scrutiny or discipline. The result is that more than 50 cents of every dollar of discretionary federal spending now goes to the Pentagon. There is no way to bring the deficit under control without making substantial and rational cuts in that budget.