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Where is the Payoff for Huge Pentagon Budget Hikes?

Since 2001, Congress has given the Pentagon more than $1 trillion to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the same period, Congress and the Pentagon have added a second trillion dollars to the nonwar (base) part of the Pentagon budget.

You’d think all that added money would give us larger forces, a newer hardware inventory and better trained people. Instead, the windfall made our forces smaller, older and less ready to fight.

A rare few in Congress have begun to notice that more money has bought less defense.

They portend a major shift in the consensus on defense spending. The coming change is a byproduct of the realization that the Pentagon is an integral part of a federal government with spending that is out of control. The Pentagon and the majority of champions of higher defense budgets in conservative think tanks and Congress are trying to head off the coming cuts with seemingly dramatic, but substantively feeble, initiatives.

Here are the facts underlying the need for real reforms.

At $707 billion, the defense budget is today higher than it has ever been since the end of World War II. That statement has been true since 2007; under the Gates plan, it will remain so out to the year 2020 if war spending stays constant.

This spending level is unrelated to the military threat. During the Cold War, from 1948 to 1990, when we faced the sizeable forces of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, annual Pentagon spending averaged $440 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today, big spending advocates point to China as the future threat we must prepare for, but if we add the defense budgets of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Cuba together, and then double that sum, the Pentagon still spends substantially more.

As to the current threat (terrorism), we almost certainly spend more in one day than the terrorists spend in an entire year.

The size of our defense budget today is not the product of the external threat. It is the result of internal Pentagon dynamics, none of them healthy.

Since 2000, Congress and presidents have funded the Pentagon with $7 trillion out to the year 2011. Of that amount, $1.3 trillion has been for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Thus, the nonwar parts of the Pentagon budget will have received $5.7 trillion.

We can calculate what the Pentagon would have received for the same period in the absence of the wars and of any spending above inflation: $4.7 trillion. That means the Pentagon’s “base” budget received a plus-up of almost $1 trillion for 2000-2011.

What did the Pentagon and Congress do with this trillion-dollar windfall? The Navy budget received an additional $293 billion, 2011 funding increased over 2000 by 44 percent. Yet the size of the Navy’s combat fleet dropped from 318 ships and submarines to 287, a decline of 10 percent.

This is not a smaller, newer fleet; it is a smaller, older fleet – about four years older, on average, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Is it more ready to fight? Almost certainly not; for the past year, the press has repeatedly reported on severe maintenance problems throughout the fleet, and Navy combat pilot training in the air has remained at historic lows.

The situation in the Air Force is worse. It received a windfall of $320 billion, an increase of 43 percent. During the same 2000-2011 period, the number of active and reserve fighter and bomber squadrons went from 146 to 72, a decline of 51 percent. Like the Navy, it’s also older on average: According to CBO, it is now about nine years older and at a historic high of about 23 years.

(Our aircraft are older than our ships.)

Air Force budget data tell us that fighter pilot air training hours today are only one-half to one-third of what they were in the 1970s, an era not touted for high readiness.

The so-called good news is from the Army. It received a plus up of $297 billion, a 53 percent increase. The number of brigade combat teams grew from 44 to 46, an increase of 5 percent. A 53 percent increase in money bought a 5 percent increase in combat forces.

But still, CBO tells us that major Army equipment inventories are mostly older. More ready to fight? In 2006, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings and leaked a memo documenting historic lows in the readiness of active Army units. The analysis has not been publicly updated; we should worry that it has gotten worse, not better.

In sum, an extra trillion dollars for the Pentagon has been processed into forces that are, with minor exceptions, smaller, older and less ready to fight.

The defense management leadership in the Pentagon and Congress has squandered a trillion dollars.

Those who recently have become politically active out of disgust with the mess in Washington should be particularly incensed over the Pentagon’s horrific performance.

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

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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.

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