How Congress Is Hollowing Out the Military

If sequester economics continues on Capitol Hill, we won’t be  ready next time there’s a war.

While Jay Z and Jill Abramson were dominating the nation’s news coverage this  week, members of Congress were quietly degrading — to little notice — the  nation’s ability to fight a war. They weren’t doing it on purpose, of course,  but at the rate they’re going, if there is ever another major conflict,  America’s military forces might not be ready.

By forcing the Department of Defense to maintain a larger force and, above  all, more pet weapons systems than its budget can support, Congress is creating  a military that is increasingly hollow, unfocused and unable to respond to the  very real dangers facing the United States from Europe to East Asia.

How did this happen? Sequestration, of course. We’ve all been taught in school  that “you can’t get something for nothing,” but apparently Congress was absent  that day. In its recent markup of next year’s National Defense Authorization  Act, DoD’s annual funding bill, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC)  directed the military to keep the A-10 tank killer aircraft, U-2 spy plane and  more than a dozen cruisers and amphibious ships that the Pentagon says it can’t  afford. The HASC also wants to continue buying Abrams tanks and amphibious  assault ships DoD didn’t ask for. And the committee blocked the Pentagon’s  attempts to save money and reduce waste by reforming military compensation and  closing excess bases and infrastructure. This week the Senate Armed Services  Committee (SASC) begins its own markup of the NDAA. Given the opposition  senators already expressed to any of the Pentagon’s proposed cost-cutting moves,  it is likely the resulting legislation will drive up defense costs over the  coming years without giving the military any more money.

The Pentagon, of course, does not want to make these cuts—it simply has no  better alternative given the budget constraints Congress established in the 2013  Bipartisan Budget Act and 2011 Budget Control Act. Congress is trying to have it  both ways by cutting defense spending and expecting the Defense Department to  continue with business as usual. But the savings will have to come from  somewhere.

Where? The Pentagon’s budget consists of four big categories of spending:  compensation, procurement, research and development and readiness. For the  coming year, the Pentagon assumed compensation costs would decline due to a  combination of a smaller Army and Marine Corps and compensation reforms such as  slower growth in housing allowances and higher fees for retiree medical care.  These modest reductions in the rate of increase in compensation make sense. The  cost per active duty service member grew 76 percent in real terms from 1998 to  2014. Without compensation reform, this growth will continue unabated and force  cuts elsewhere in the budget.

In acquisitions, the Pentagon proposed making some strategic choices. It would  slow down purchases of some weapons to save money and stop buying other systems  such as M-1 Abrams battle tanks and San Antonio-class amphibious assault ships.  These weapon systems are not urgently needed for the kinds of operations the  military expects to do in the near future and therefore can wait until more  funding is available. The HASC reversed several of these reductions, though, and  under its plan procurement and research and development will together get more  money next year than DoD proposed.

There’s only one other place in the budget to go for the money to pay for more  compensation and more acquisition: “readiness.” Readiness funding pays for the  training, maintenance, parts and supplies that enable U.S. forces to do  everything from nuclear deterrence to disaster response. But readiness is  difficult to defend, in part because it isn’t measured very well. In military  acquisitions, people know exactly how many dollars go in and how many weapons  come out. With military readiness, however, we know how much money goes to  training, maintenance, and so on, but we do not have good measures of the  output—the ability of forces to perform in real-world operations. As a result,  it is hard to set a “red line” for readiness funding or even know the impact of  cutting it.

The Pentagon had planned to improve readiness starting next year by closing  excess facilities, retiring legacy weapons systems (such as the A-10, U-2 and  KC-46 tanker) and “mothballing” some cruisers and amphibious ships. This would  have allowed DoD to spread its readiness dollars among a smaller number of  bases, ships and squadrons. The force would be smaller, but more ready. When  budgets are tight, however, it is easier for Congress to protect things that are  more visible and straightforward to quantify: buildings and runways, ships and  airplanes, tanks and brigade combat teams.

And that’s exactly what happened. So now, to pay for more compensation and  acquisition, DoD will have to cut readiness funding and spread those dollars  across a larger force. That means next year there will be less flying, less  steaming, less training and fewer spare parts and supplies. This is what we mean  by “hollowing out.”

This isn’t strategically smart, and it effectively takes Congress out of the  decision-making process on how to maintain readiness. The military will be  forced to cut readiness based on what is practical and expedient, rather than  being able to prioritize capabilities that are most important for the world  we’re in. For example, the Navy will have to pay for nuclear maintenance on its  carriers and submarines and therefore be compelled to forego maintenance on  destroyers that are our front-line forces in the Black Sea, Baltic and East  China Sea. The Army will have to pay for the drawdown in Afghanistan, and  therefore won’t be able to ramp up the training and preparation of troops that  will rotationally deploy to support U.S. allies and partners in Europe and  Asia.

There are innovative ways to keep equipment for later while saving money  today. The Navy, for instance, proposed mothballing 12 ships and then upgrading  and returning them to the fleet at a rate of one or two per year over the next  decade. The result would save almost $1 billion per year in operating costs and  extend the lives of the ships into the late 2030s. But the HASC wants to stall  this plan by forcing DoD to wait for a General Accounting Office report due in  mid-2015—too late to implement the idea until 2016 at the earliest.

HASC chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) tried to apply the “mothball” approach  instead as a compromise on the A-10 tank killer aircraft. Rather than allowing  the Air Force to retire its aging aircraft, he proposed putting them in  long-term storage. His committee shot down the proposal and directed the  Pentagon to keep them in service. In the Senate, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and  others already made clear they don’t support retiring the A-10.

Congress, when it passed sequestration in 2011, asked the Pentagon to be more  strategic, efficient and innovative. That is what DoD is trying to do. If  lawmakers continue to reject DoD’s efforts to reshape and reform the military,  they are effectively forcing the military to be less strategic, less efficient  and less innovative. Defense cuts require hard choices, but if the Senate  follows the House’s lead, we could end up with a paper tiger military that looks  good on the surface but isn’t prepared to respond in a security environment that  becomes more uncertain every day.

Bryan Clark is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary  Assessments, a nonprofit public policy research institute for national security  strategy. Todd Harrison is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary  Assessments, a nonprofit public policy research institute for national security  strategy.

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