Right-Sizing Pentagon Budget Will Require Political Courage, Focus on Bang for Buck

The federal government’s $4 trillion of emergency spending during the COVID-19 crisis has led many policymakers from across the ideological spectrum to re-examine waste and inefficiency across the regular (base) federal budget. National Taxpayers Union has joined a plethora of groups - conservative, liberal, and in between - asking that the Pentagon budget be “on the table” when it comes to spending reductions and revisions in the near future. It’s particularly important for Congress to consider right-sizing the Pentagon budget, the largest of any federal agency, because for decades Republicans and Democrats alike have supported unsustainable spending levels at the Department of Defense (DoD).

A recent episode underscored that DoD needs more oversight and accountability from Congress. The Washington Post revealed in a story that the Pentagon spent $1 billion in CARES Act funds for highly questionable purposes. The money, intended for the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), effectively went to contractors for projects that had little to do with the coronavirus crises. NTU co-led a letter to a House select committee asking lawmakers to investigate this practice, and 39 other groups signed the letter.

While it’s critical for Congress to investigate this $1 billion of potential waste - and consider ways that they can prevent abuse of funds going forward - this is, sadly, a drop in the bucket when it comes to Pentagon expenditures. NTU has pointed before to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account as a key source of ‘slush fund’ spending for the Pentagon, less accountable and transparent to taxpayers than the Pentagon’s already-bloated, nearly $700 billion ‘base’ budget. By our estimate, over the last seven years (including DoD’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 OCO request) around $164 billion in OCO has or will be allocated to base, enduring, or non-war requirements, even though OCO is intended, by definition, for “contingency” or emergency needs overseas.

Fortunately, there’s some agreement even among former military leaders that there are areas to trim the Pentagon’s budget moving forward - all without harming national security. As two former National Defense Strategy Commission members and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense wrote in Foreign Policy last month:

Other corners of the Pentagon appear entirely unaffected by the shift to great-power competition. Nearly two decades since its inception, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, often referred to as the “war budget,” has had no meaningful decline despite significantly lower troop levels in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Accurately representing the true base budget of the Department of Defense, which currently spills over into the special OCO budget, will improve transparency about the alignment of U.S. resources and strategy.

The authors - Elbridge Colby, Mackenzie Eaglen, and Roger Zakheim - point to other areas of the DoD budget that are in need of reconsideration or reduction. This includes:

  • Reevaluating “the utility of extended peacetime presence missions, even if the initial savings from doing so are modest”;
  • Minimizing “redundancies” between the services, such as “[ensuring] deep strike capabilities” between the Air Force and Army “are complementary rather than duplicative”;
  • And, perhaps most importantly, “[a]n overhaul of current platforms and systems is overdue—and early cancellation of unsustainable programs…”

On the last point, NTU and some of its allies have been leading the charge for years on a number of over-budget, underperforming, wasteful legacy programs that should be scrapped or severely curtailed: the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS); “a poster child for what happens when parochial politics trump strategy and common sense”), the Navy’s frigate program (“[m]aybe the Navy shouldn’t agree to buy ships before a design is finalized or a cost estimate is in hand?”), and the infamous F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program (beset by “cost-overruns, delays, ongoing mechanical, software, and helmet issues, upgrades, and concerns from allies,” among other issues). We’re also working with lawmakers to make the OCO account more accountable, more transparent, and, well, less slushy - all in the hopes that the account is either dramatically diminished in the future or just doesn’t exist.

Almost as important, though - and sometimes overlooked by advocates for aggressive Pentagon cuts - are efforts to modernize the bloated Pentagon bureaucracy and improve coordination between the six service branches. The right investments are still important to taxpayers in the short run and the long run, which is why NTU ultimately did not agree with some progressive efforts to cut nearly half of the Pentagon’s budget in FY 2021 (though we continue to applaud lawmakers willing to put these expenditures under a microscope).

The authors of the Foreign Policy op-ed point to such modernization efforts:

...the services should consider whether they are all totally bought in on the Air Force’s version of a military Internet of Things, or will some hedge their bets and go it alone when there should be unity of funding and effort behind one plan.

Indeed, these efforts at the Air Force feed right in to the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system, “a kind of meta software platform for warfare that connects all humans, devices and equipment across the domains of air, land, sea, space and cyber — and even the electromagnetic spectrum.”

The Army’s contribution to JADC2 is the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS), which has become “one of the Army's six modernization priorities.” This system is essentially built so that the Army’s air defense capabilities are multidimensional, or, as the Army News Service puts it:

IBCS integrates current and future Air and Missile Defense (AMD) sensors and weapons into a common integrated fire control capability with a distributed “plug-and-fight” network architecture. IBCS is the fire control and operational-center capability that provides greater defense effectiveness than the current single sensor fire unit systems.

A recent op-ed in Real Clear Defense underscored the potential value of IBCS, and JADC2 more broadly, to the taxpayer:

Today, if you cannot defend yourself from aerial observation or attack, you will not survive and all of the tanks, artillery, and aircraft the Pentagon has invested in will be of little value or use.

...Put simply, one-trick-ponies, operating in isolation with stove-piped architectures, will not survive in today's air and missile fight, nor do they enhance friendly air operations.

The Army recently successfully completed two flight tests as part of the weeks-long Limited User Tests (LUTs) for IBCS, suggesting that this system could enhance the military’s air defenses and save both lives and taxpayer dollars in the long run. With an initial production decision later this year and full rate production slated for 2021, both the Army and Congress must take care to avoid introducing instability into program planning.

In fact, integrating IBCS with Army and other Services’ systems could provide an example of how breaking out of the “siloed” mentality could yield considerable benefits to taxpayers. Three years ago Dean Popps, a former acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, sagely observed about missile defense consolidation:

Gone will be the days of managing seven siloed, legacy command and control systems, each requiring maintenance and modernization budgets. That can be extremely cumbersome and costly, including paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single line of code.

While NTU continues to believe that the Pentagon budget requires reductions in the short and long term, JADC2 is not the first instance of a new program where upfront investment of taxpayer dollars could allow for those long-term reductions. Earlier this year, NTU wrote to Congress on hypersonic defense investments, arguing that the Pentagon needed to spend more of its hypersonic budget on defense (currently just six percent of $2.6 billion requested) and less on offense.

Overall, the Pentagon budget needs to come down over the next decade (and beyond), and there are plenty of areas primed for cuts (OCO, the F-35 program, the LCS program, and more). Not all components of DoD are created equal, though, making some extremely large and instant proposals for cuts less palatable for lawmakers and, ultimately, taxpayers. Congress can do a lot even with a scalpel, but it will require diligent work in the years to come.