Congress Handcuffs Pentagon Cost-Cutters

Bases that can’t be closed, weapons that can’t be retired, benefits that can’t be touched. What’s left? The essentials.

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 27 JAN 14) … Todd Harrison and Mark Gunzinger

While the budget battles in recent years have been difficult for many parts of the federal government, they have forced the Pentagon into a perpetual state of crisis management, limping from one budget showdown to the next. This fiscal chaos is not conducive to carrying out the nation’s defense.

If military spending must decline as part of an overall reduction in federal spending, Congress should abide by three simple rules: (1) a gradual decline in military spending rather than a sharp drop; (2) a greater degree of budgetary certainty for the coming years; and (3) the flexibility necessary for the Pentagon to make smart, strategically informed reductions.

The Ryan-Murray budget agreement, passed by Congress late last year, conforms to two of these rules. It reduces the cuts required in 2014-15 so that spending reductions are phased in gradually. It also gives the Defense Department more certainty in its future funding because both the House and Senate passed the two-year deal in a bipartisan manner. While Congress must still pass appropriations bills that conform to the budget caps, Ryan-Murray allows Pentagon planners to do something they haven’t done in several years – prepare a realistic defense budget that has a chance of passing.

One important task remains. Congress needs to give the Pentagon greater flexibility to make smart reductions informed by strategy. This requires more than passing an annual appropriations bill and avoiding sequestration. It means Congress must set aside parochial political interests and allow the Pentagon to make tough decisions that are likely to be unpopular with some constituencies.

For example, the Defense Department has repeatedly asked Congress for another Base Realignment and Closure Commission so it can shed excess bases and facilities, which the military estimates is about 20% of its existing infrastructure. Yet current law prohibits the Pentagon from closing these unneeded bases and facilities, forcing it to waste billions of dollars every year. While no private company would tolerate such waste, key members of Congress have blocked efforts to close bases because this wasteful spending supports jobs in their districts.

The Pentagon has also asked for sensible reforms to rein in its growing personnel costs, such as raising the fee working-age military retirees pay for health insurance by a few dollars per month. Congress has repeatedly blocked these reforms, and as a result the cost per service member for pay and benefits grew by 57% from 2001 to 2012 when adjusted for inflation and excluding war-related costs. This growth was due to a number of factors, including rising health-care costs, higher than requested pay raises, and new and expanded benefits such as Tricare for Life, a Medicare supplemental policy provided free of charge to military retirees 65 and older.

If Congress will not allow the Pentagon to change military compensation to slow this growth, it will have little choice but to cut the number of military personnel. And if compensation costs continue growing while the overall budget declines, the Pentagon will have to continue cutting people to the point where the military may be too small to protect all of our nation’s global security interests.

The Pentagon also needs greater freedom to retire legacy weapons. The Air Force has said it needs to retire some older aircraft – including the A-10 ground-attack aircraft and the KC-10 aerial refueler – to fit within Congress’s budget constraints. Both planes have been incredibly valuable in the past, and the A-10 in particular has proven its worth in Iraq and Afghanistan. If resources weren’t constrained both aircraft would be worth keeping. But the budget is constrained, and the Air Force has determined it has other aircraft that can do the same jobs. Because the Defense Department is now more focused on countering threats in the Asian-Pacific region than preparing for major ground wars, the A-10, whose primary mission is providing close air support for ground forces, is understandably a lower priority.

Yet some members of Congress are already working to prevent the Air Force from making financially smart and strategically informed reductions. The other military services have similar issues, with Congress repeatedly blocking the Navy from retiring older ships and forcing the military to keep production lines open for legacy weapons it no longer wants to buy.

With all of these constraints layered on top of one another – not being able to close bases, reform compensation or retire legacy weapons – the Pentagon has few degrees of freedom left. If the nation wants effective and efficient government, it has to start making smart decisions. It is time for Congress to set aside politics and give the Defense Department the flexibility to do what is best for the nation, both fiscally and strategically.

Messrs. Harrison and Gunzinger are senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.

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