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The Elites and the Pentagon Budget

The stench of elitism is permeating Washington, just as it did a decade ago when everyone of consequence bought the proposition that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction-and even if there was room for doubt, he was a threat and “had to go.”  Today, the subject matter is different, but the methods are the same:  say things that are demonstrably false but use enough extreme rhetoric from four star admirals, cabinet secretaries and congressional chairmen to establish a middle ground that eliminates opposition.  Those who fear being labeled out of the mainstream, especially the major media, are buying it just as mindlessly as they did before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This time the subject matter is the defense budget.  Cutting it is the target of rhetorical gibberish, just as President George Bush warned of a “mushroom cloud” overAmerica if we didn’t invade Iraq.  Nonetheless, it is politically potent and intimidating to opponents who might otherwise speak up.

The most extreme language and the most Rumsfeld-esque display of “facts” are coming from the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Buck McKeon (R-CA).  His latest is to forecast the military draft if the defense budget is cut.  He also told his staff to display numbers to up his ante.  They dutifully wrote an “Assessment of Impact of Budget Cuts“that listed various reductions they found unavoidable if the defense budget is cut:  200,000 fewer Soldiers and Marines; fighter aircraft reduced by a 24 percent, and an overall spending level that “degrades our ability to deter a rising China from challenging other allies.”

So eager were McKeon’s staff drones to comply with their prejudiced instruction that their analysis did not once contain the words “waste,” “fraud,” “abuse,” “overhead” or “officer creep” in a budget so notorious for same that it has kept itself exempt from financial audits for decades-and plans to do so for the foreseeable future.

McKeon and his servile staff are hardly alone.  The ether is full of oratory that makes McKeon’s assertions seem unremarkable and his facts what everybody should know. Leading the charge is, of course, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who almost daily uses terminology like “doomsday,” “catastrophe,” and more recently “shooting ourselves in the head” to describe anything less than a defense budget perpetually growing from this year on out.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen provides the needed tinge of authority (just like McKeon’s committee staff) by referring to a budget “abyss” to Congress. His choice of words, however, provide a useful insight about Mullen’s seamless relationship with the defense industry: “abyss” is precisely the term just previously used by Marion Blakey, the chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association comprising DOD’s top corporate manufacturers. Nevertheless, Mullen’s words were injected into news articles as if they were full of import and meaning, rather than crass politicization.

In today’s context, the media presents the views dissenting from any of this as an aside, almost universally in the final paragraphs in articles, to ape balance while implying to readers that such views, while presented, are not to be given credence by those in the know.

Consider just what these people find so disturbing.

The Defense Department recently released a report on China’s military, estimating its defense budget at $91.5 billion.  Skeptical that was all, DOD re-estimated all “military-related” Chinese spending at $160 billion. (Find the report at http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2011_cmpr_final.pdf.)

If the worst of the worst happens under the debt deal President Obama made with the Republicans last August and the so-called “doomsday mechanism” is triggered to cut Pentagon spending, it might go down as low as $472 billion, the same level as in 2007.

If returned to that 2007 level, the base DOD budget would be $73 billion higher than it was in 2000, the year before the various wars started.  If spending were to be continued at the $472 billion level for the next 10 years, base Defense Department spending would be three quarters of a trillion dollars above the levels extant in 2000. And, not a penny of the additional monies to be spent on the wars would be eliminated.

At the 2007 level, US military spending would be almost three times that of China.  And yet, Congress McKeon, his staff, and his diverse bobble-heads would have you believe that we cannot maintain “our ability to deter a rising China from challenging other allies.”

Actually, it is more than three times larger; if we calculate “military-related” spending for the US, I come to a total-including additional spending for the wars, nuclear weapons, defense commodity stockpiles, homeland security, veterans’ care, military and economic aid and some other military related accounts-over $800 billion.

If “military-related” is the measure, our spending-even at the “doomsday” level-comes to at least fives times that of China.

The gargantuan size of the “doomsday” budget-even for the smaller category of just Pentagon spending-can be appreciated in other ways.

The 2007 Pentagon budget was a new peak in spending, not a valley.  It exceeded every year but one since the end of the Cold War, and it exceeded average annual spending during the Cold War ($434 billion) by $38 billion.  (Find an analysis of previous spending at http://www.cdi.org/pdfs/GreenbookInflationMay11.pdf.)

In the absence of a hostile Soviet Union and an implacably communist China, today’s defense leadership finds an increase of $38 billion over Cold War levels to be “doomsday,” an “abyss.”

McKeon and these hysterics would also have you believe the $472 billion level of spending would require decimating our forces.  In 2007 we had a Navy “battleforce” fleet of 279 ships, not the 238 the HASC staff says we could barely afford, and we had a larger inventory of fighter aircraft than we do today, not the 25 percent reduction the HASC foresees.

The problem is not money.  Under this worse case scenario, the Pentagon would be left quite flush with money – plenty of it in historical terms.

But the Pentagon, as it currently exists, is incapable of surviving with less money.   In fact, it is incapable of surviving with more money.

Since 2000, presidents and Congresses have added $1 trillion to the base (non-war) Pentagon budget.  During that period our forces decayed.  Between 2001 and 2012, the Navy’s combat fleet shrank from 316 ships and submarines to 287, a 10 percent decline, and the number of active and reserve fighter and bomber squadrons declined from 142 to 72-49 percent less. These are not smaller but more modern forces; major equipment age in all the services is higher today, on average, not lower.  Our forces also get less training time in the US than before 9/11, and maintenance backlogs are longer, not shorter.

That is precisely where Congressman McKeon, Secretary Panetta, and Admiral Mullen demonstrate their colossal failure to cope with the problem.  They believe that spending levels are the key determinant of military viability.  They fail to acknowledge that for the past decade-actually longer-more money has meant smaller, older, less ready forces.

Their worship of the money flow means they cannot conceive how our forces might actually improve at lower levels of spending, and they quake in fear at the prospect of Pentagon spending being only thrice that of China.  Indeed, they have no inkling how to reduce spending without reducing the viability of our forces.  At lower budget levels, they will indeed decimate our forces.

Before they are given a chance to do that, they should be replaced.   Congressman McKeon has literally proven he is incapable of coping effectively with a lower budget level at the Pentagon.  The Republican caucus should replace him as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee with someone who can.

The same applies to Leon Panetta, who has proven in the Office of the Secretary of Defense that politicians in executive jobs are politicians, not executives.  Admiral Mullen, while now going, is being replaced by a likely facsimile, but events and rhetoric will determine if General Martin Dempsey is any different.

Time, while running out, remains.  Currently, we must endure a vacuum of leadership from the White House and the absence of any meaningful pushback to the McKeon/Panetta hysteria from any other Democrats-or Republicans.  As a result, no decision to effect serious defense budget cuts will take place until after the 2012 elections.  Then, our overstuffed, pampered Pentagon will be acknowledged as a stark reality-one that our political system can no longer ignore.

The cuts are coming; they will need a leadership that can cope with them. The sweet smell of today’s elitist wisdom will become a little over ripe. While the new leaders are currently unknown, operative olfactory nerves will be a requirement.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project and editor of “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.

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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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