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Spending Even More, Buying Even Less

The New Pentagon Budget

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

The new budget now being trotted out for the Pentagon is a tired old document, bereft of the many significant changes needed to revive our decaying defenses. Worse, the Pentagon’s masters and its peanut galleries in Congress, the press, and think tanks opine delusions that anything significant is changing.

Much will be made of a few reluctant acknowledgements of reality and old news painted as noteworthy. The Navy won’t plan on, for now, a new cruiser it can’t afford even under the wildest budget growth assumptions. The Army will continue redesigning the vehicles for its “system of system” target hunting technologies that we now know can’t find even primitive enemies. The Air Force will press on for a new bomber to try, yet again, to attack what it called decades ago “critical nodes.” The Marine Corps will declare a return to its amphibious warfare heritage: to fight its way onto hostile shores – something it has not done since 1945.

The new spending level for the Pentagon reinforces the non-change. At $708 billion, we will witness yet another year of “real growth:” a trajectory we have been on since 1999. As usual, we will be told that the increases are because we live in a dangerous world, as evidenced by the continuing, if not expanding, wars President Obama wants to fight directly or indirectly in at least five countries. We will also be told of the “austere” nature of the Pentagon budget for its spending back home; although it is the largest DOD money plan since 1946.

A dangerous world it may be, but significantly less so than the one we saw in the Cold War when we faced hundreds of Soviet divisions in Europe and tried to address unending brushfire – or worse — wars all over the world, least some new communist regime tip the scales of perceived balance against us. The relative calm we witness today, nonetheless results in an American defense budget that is today about $200 billion higher than the average Pentagon Cold War budget.

A new report from the Congressional Research Service now tells us that the Bush/Obama wars have cost just over $1 Trillion, but that is just 19 percent of the $5.3 Trillion spent by the Pentagon in the same period. The conflicts that impel the growth in the budget actually comprise only a fifth of its size.

Excluding the cost of the wars, the “base” Pentagon budget has also gone up dramatically: 25 percent, or over another Trillion dollars. What we have gotten for that huge increase illuminates the disturbing nature of our decay. The Navy and Air Force are both smaller and equipped with major hardware that is, on average, older than at any point since the end of World War II. The Army and Marine Corps have seen increases to a few combat formations but are only marginally above their post-World War II lows. A gargantuan increase in spending has brought forth major decay in two military services and insignificant up-ticks in two others.

Where did the added money go? According to the Government Accountability Office almost $300 billion went into mismanagement in the form of cost overruns for hardware. (Expect a new GAO report this spring finding the cost overruns have grown.) Much of the rest of the money for acquisition went into “successful” hardware programs that were so much more expensive to buy and maintain than what they were replacing that we literally shrunk the force with more money, while simultaneously spending more to support this new equipment at lower operating and training levels.

With better justification, but exacerbated by a herd of politicians anxious to pander, another huge cost increase has been in military manpower. Largely indiscriminant pay increases and gigantically expensive programs for healthcare, retirement, disability, and family survivors have now set the rate of increase in military manpower spending well above the rate of increase in the rest of the Pentagon budget. The uncontrolled costs for manpower and hardware have made the two competitors for each other’s wallets: advocates for hardware try to raid the personnel budget, and the advocates of high manpower costs spend the money as a political necessity – without the slightest reflection on how to pay for it all, or the implications.

You will search in vain for rescue from these trends in the new budget. Anyone paying the slightest attention knows both of these wolves have passed the door, but no one in the Pentagon or Congress (repeat; no one) has the political spine to confront the trends and reverse them.

Instead of exploring real reform, the nation’s national security leadership spawns justifications for business as usual. Paralleling the 2011 Pentagon budget is a new national security master plan, the Quadrennial Defense Review, written by the Pentagon’s top leadership. They proudly announce that they have discarded simplistic formulas to justify America’s defense bloat and have come up with a new construct. The document reveals that the only thing they changed is the terminology.

Neither the new budget nor the new QDR bring anything significantly innovative, or even original. The decay — at ever increasing cost – continues. There will be a reckoning; the longer we dither, the worse it will be.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.