Democrats and the Defense Budgets

All the conditions are ripe for a major debate on America’s defense budget. A Republican White House and Congress have produced, at increased cost, a military establishment that is shrinking, aging and less ready to fight. The ruinous effects have shown up again and again, in the form of over-stretched, poorly supported forces in Iraq.

There is, however, no debate. The Democratic Party, while happy to take easy potshots, is advocating more of the same.

On track to exceed $530 billion this year, Pentagon spending is now higher than at any time since World War II, even though our military is smaller today than at anytime since 1946. America’s huge defense budget now exceeds the rest of the world combined.

Our largest potential adversary, China, spends barely more than a 10th of what we do, and North Korea and Iran each spend roughly 1 percent. Nonetheless, we are asked to support still larger budgets in future years, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan notwithstanding.

The Democratic Party complains that Americans want and deserve change, but their criticisms studiously avoid the fundamental issues. Consider some examples–examples, not so incidentally, that the Democrats seek to perpetuate.

The Air Force’s F-22 fighter was started in 1983; it quickly gained weight and cost, thus diminishing its performance as a fighter and the number we can afford. As the price grew from less than $130 million to more than $360 million per aircraft, the proposed inventory shrank from 750 to a puny 181. A recent evaluation by one of the designers of the highly successful F-16 illustrates that the F-22’s design ignores the realities of air combat and is a war loser, not a winner.

Nonetheless, the “modernization” plan of adding F-22s as we retire F-15s, which has broad bipartisan support, proceeds. The F-15 inventory, initially more than 700 aircraft, is now aging faster than the F-22 will ever “replace” them. The modernization plan literally shrinks the fighter force as it ages, and does so at increasing cost.

Isolated example? Ask the Navy what has been happening to its overweight and over-cost DD/X destroyer. Ask the Army what is occurring with its galaxy of sensors and under-armored vehicles, dubbed optimistically the “Future Combat System.” There are many more examples–all supported by both parties in Congress.

As these money-hungry procurement programs scrounge for dollars inside the defense budget, Pentagon managers squeeze spending for manpower, thereby reinforcing the shrunken weapons inventory with fewer people. Also looted is the operating budget, thereby shorting money for training, maintenance and spare parts.

Following this lead, Congress, with the Democrats as full partners, raids the manpower and “readiness” accounts to pay for what it loves most to add to defense budgets: pork costing billions and billions. The result is that as the shrinking and aging proceeds, the force is becoming less and less ready to fight.

These trends flourish under the Pentagon’s managerial incompetence, which is exposed for all to see by the Office of Management and Budget’s quarterly rating of all major federal agencies on five measures of governance. The most recent “Executive Branch Management Scorecard” ranked the Defense Department “unsatisfactory,” the worst designation, in three of the five measures; in the other two, the best it could do was “mixed results.” Of the 25 agencies rated by the OMB, only Veterans Affairs ranked worse. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office has identified more areas of concern in the Defense Department than in any other Cabinet-level department in its important “High Risk” reports about poor management.

Two problems illustrate the incompetence further. Year after year, the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department’s own inspector general have reported that the Pentagon’s financial transactions, supply system and payments to contractors are so chaotic that they cannot be audited. Note the wording: The Pentagon does not fail audits–it’s simply unauditable. It would literally be an improvement for it to be able to flunk an audit.

The Defense Department’s managers have also produced a system that each year plots its programs out into the future, but then fails to plan the budget needed to pay for them. The process is known as “underfunding,” and both the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office have reported on it for years. Unaddressed, it grows worse; the Congressional Budget Office now estimates the gap between projected and actual program costs to have grown from $50 billion to as much as $100 billion–per year.

Perhaps worst of all is how we pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Protesting it can’t predict what the wars are costing, the Pentagon submits to Congress late “emergency supplementals” to finance combat operations–along with several other things it can’t wedge into its gigantic “baseline” budget. Congress, again with the Democrats as willful conspirators, proceeds to use the supplementals as a budget gimmick to enable still more pork while also failing to redress the inadequacies in the war funding accounts, such as insufficient payments for equipment repair and replacement.

The temptation is to blame Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for all of it; his boastful pronouncements make that all the easier. However, while he deservedly reaps today what he has sown on the war, he didn’t create the problems in our over-priced, shrinking military forces and incompetent Pentagon management. As decades of reports from the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office and Defense Department inspector general make abundantly clear, he inherited the problems from his predecessors, several of them Democrats.

With the nation fighting a war that both suffers from and exacerbates all the negative trends, and with Rumsfeld and the Republicans in Congress doing nothing about any of it, you might hope the Democrats would go after the problems as aggressively as they exploit the rhetorical opportunities.
Indeed, the Democrats have made their bid. They recently released a document titled “Real Security.” It accurately notes “inadequate planning and incompetent policies have failed to make Americans as safe as we should be.”

“Real Security” pledges to “rebuild a state-of-the-art military by making the needed investments in equipment and manpower.” The fine print in the 123-page white paper making the case for “Real Security” goes on to implicitly endorse the entire Bush defense acquisition plan, except for promising to accelerate and expand some programs.

To pay for it all, not even the usual Democratic piñata, national missile defense, is suggested as an offset. Instead, the Democrats suggest the supplemental funding that now pays upwards of $100 billion per year for the wars should continue when the wars are finished.

The term “financial management” appears nowhere in “Real Security” or its white paper. No hint exists that the Pentagon’s undisciplined buying plan should be brought into alignment with its unrealistic budget. No weapon system–no matter how irrelevant to 21st century warfare, is suggested for termination, reduction or delay.

To be fair, a minority faction of Democrats is dissenting. Called the Congressional Progressive Caucus, they advocate cutting the defense budget by $60 billion and transferring it to social programs that the progressives’ constituency favors. This plan, which the Republicans slander as “anti-defense,” has the virtue of recognizing there are some problems, and contrary to the calumny, would do no more harm to our defenses than ongoing business as usual.

However, both “Real Security” and the Congressional Progressive Caucus miss the point. Readjusting defense dollars, whether up or down, will do nothing to address the problems, which are fundamentally questions of competence and ethics.

More or less money will do nothing to make Defense Department programs and mangers accountable through rudimentary financial management. Managers in the private sector who fail on this measure are fired; some go to jail. In the Defense Department, none are held accountable; many are promoted. When that changes, competent program and financial management can begin.

In today’s political environment, it requires real moral spine on the part of civilians in the Pentagon or Congress to stand up to the military services’ procurement bureaucracies. But with weapon systems being served up that have little to do with real world combat and a lot more to do with technological and careerist agendas, that is exactly what the situation calls for.

Real political courage is needed, not dollar transfers to favored constituencies, to force Congress to stop junking up defense bills with pork and raiding the Defense Department’s personnel and operating budgets to pay for it.

The keys to reforming America’s defenses are not in vacuous policy brochures or arguments about dollar amounts mostly directed at political pets. It lies in people understanding the nature of the problems and having the guts to apply real solutions.

The Democrats want us to ignore how they helped to create the mess and their current intention to do nothing about it. In fact, they are not even thinking about solutions–and the Republicans appreciate that.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues. He can be contacted at:

This commentary originally appeared in The Forward on May 18.



Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.