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Defense Budget: Something’s Got to Give

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

President Obama’s budget for the Department of Defense for 2014 is a strange document. As if to justify its disconnect from reality, someone in the administration advertised it to the press as basic to Obama’s overall negotiations with Republicans. If true, that does not augur well for needed change in the Pentagon.

What the Defense budget request really shows is that there is no new thinking in the Pentagon for putting defense spending on a constructive path. There is not even anything that promises a departure from the last-minute, hysterical decision making we observed in the denouement of the 2013 defense budget process.

As submitted, the new Defense plan simply wishes away the statutory reality of sequestration, and to pretend to save money, it trots out only tired old ideas.

It asks Congress’s permission to close surplus military bases, of which there are many. Last year, lawmakers summarily rejected this idea. Already, this year’s members are saying a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) is not going to happen, and nothing in the new BRAC request gives anyone on Capitol Hill any reason to think differently.

For the umpteenth time in a row, the Department of Defense is seeking to reduce costs for its extraordinarily expensive – and still growing – Defense Health Plan. Protecting itself from a powerful constituency that lobbies hard to keep these benefits (and costs) high, Congress has always said no. This request is also accompanied by nothing to make Congress act any differently.

The 2014 budget envisions savings up to $150 billion over 10 years. But only $16 billion of that is scheduled to occur while Obama is president; the rest won’t happen – if it actually does – until the “out years.” This too is a tired old gambit; those out years never occur as planned. But Congress does like pretend savings; they help the talking points.

The budget materials presented on April 10 do not even reflect the current statutory reality of the $42 billion sequester that is required for the current 2013 budget, and the budget materials ignore the scheduled sequester of $52 billion in 2014. Last year’s strategy was to declare sequester unacceptable and hope for someone to change it; that remains the plan for 2014.

These simple-minded ideas only pretend to save money, and they ignore reality. They contain no thinking to alter the negative patterns of events of the past.

Fundamental reform is needed to change the course of events in the Pentagon. What would such a plan look like?

First, it would hold the Pentagon, and Congress, accountable for accurate budget numbers. As everyone already knows, the Pentagon has not just failed audits – its books cannot even be audited. A rudimentary start would be submitting an accounting of the 2013 and 2014 budgets that reflect existing law. That would mean numbers that show how the sequester should be implemented, if necessary, rather than just ignoring it. Just hoping for something different is not a competent strategy, and it is the antithesis of accountability. The Pentagon crew responsible for this stupendously wooden-headed plan is the same bunch that promises to produce an audit of Pentagon finances as early as 2014. They are not headed in the right direction.

A credible plan for moving effectively into the Pentagon’s future would also include the removal of underperforming, unaffordable weapons. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the epitome of low performance at a high cost (and delivered late), and yet the Pentagon is still striving to make the F-35 program too big to fail. Top Pentagon managers deny even the existence of viable alternatives. The latter would include more production of existing – and highly successful – models, and literally going back to the drawing board for far more effective, far more affordable designs and real-prototype competitions for both new fighters and ground-attack aircraft.

These and other failures show that simply replacing Leon Panetta as secretary of Defense is not enough. Either the exiting team needs to change radically how it operates, or it needs to be replaced. Secretary Chuck Hagel’s thinking on this is not clear; he seems willing to acknowledge budget realities, but he also seems to be relying on the existing team and its behavior, as is.

Something has to give. Business as usual will not get Hagel to where he says he wants to go, which is constructively adjusting to the reality of lower defense budgets. If Hagel doesn’t change his team one way or the other, he will be a failure as secretary of Defense.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight. Previously, he worked on national security issues for both Republican and Democratic senators and for the Government Accountability Office.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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