Time for a top to bottom review of defense spending

By Daniel DePetris

If there is any law that the establishment foreign policy crowd in Washington would like nothing more than to eliminate, it’s the Budget Control Act—a budget mechanism that limits the amount of revenue that the federal government can use for discretionary items in the national budget. Given that defense spending, like all discretionary spending in the U.S. budget, is impacted by the caps, defense hawks who have long pushed for more borrowing to pay for increased missions and programs.

Indeed, President Donald Trump has indicated on countless occasions that this is exactly what he intends to do.  Shortly after the swearing-in ceremony, the Trump administration wrote on the White House website that, "President Trump will end the defense sequester and submit a new budget to Congress outlining a plan to rebuild our military.”  Ending the defense sequester, of course, would not only entail removing the caps that have served as the only check on out-of-control government spending, but doing so in a way that doesn’t further pile money on top of an already massive deficit.

Sen. John McCain, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has some bold and grandiose plans about how to do that. According to McCain, the U.S. military needs an additional $430 billion over the next five years to enhance readiness, buy additional fighter aircraft, increase the size of the army by 8,000 personnel per year, speed up the purchase of more ships to improve the modernization of America's nuclear arsenal, and provide the resources that our special operations force needs to address the "gray areas" of cyber defense. In short, McCain wants more funds so Americans in uniform can perform more missions at a faster pace. 

What tends to get lost in the entire question, however, is a focus on how the Pentagon spends the money it already has and the types of missions that the political leadership has ordered the U.S. Armed Forces to perform. 

As much as pro-defense lawmakers prefer to discuss the dearth of money available in the Pentagon’s coffers, they rarely show the same intellectual curiosity on a far more critical conversation about mission priorities and strategy.  Occupations, regime change, nation-building from the ground-up, counterinsurgency operations, and never-ending advisory campaigns, for example, have diverted trillions of dollars that could have otherwise been expended in other areas of the defense budget, including readiness, research and development, troop strength, pay raises, and more VA hospitals so America’s current and former soldiers don’t have to go out searching for care.  We can’t change what has already occurred over the past sixteen years, but U.S. defense officials — civilian and military — can use the last sixteen years as a valuable lesson to spend the money that they currently have available more wisely and on areas of the defense budget that will truly defend U.S. national security interests with as little loss of life among U.S. personnel as possible

Defense hawks have a bad habit of thinking that merely pumping more money into the Defense Department bureaucracy will fix the problem. And yet what these people consistently fail to acknowledge is that shoveling tens of billions of dollars into the Pentagon without a fundamental look at the military's mission is akin to throwing good money after bad.

Millions of families across the country have to sit down, prioritize which areas of their lives are more important than others, whether they can afford that vacation at the end of the year, or whether they need to change their spending habits in order to keep up with the rent or the mortgage. It's called fiscal discipline, something that too many departments and government agencies haven't had to worry about for decades. Congress has been all to willing to write large checks to government departments that seem to grow larger by the year.

The Pentagon can begin to change that culture and serve as a good example for the rest of its colleagues across the federal government. But the Pentagon cannot begin to do that if it's top leadership neglects to ask itself the difficult questions that have long been put off: Does the U.S. military have to be everywhere, doing everything, for everyone, all the time?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no," if U.S. national security can be defended and promoted with more fiscal and doctrinal restraint, then Secretary James Mattis shouldn't wait a day before ordering his advisers to undertake a wholesale assessment of Washington's national security objectives to determine what indeed is a top priority.  Mattis may have a partner in Rep. Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, someone who has used his time as a congressman to take fire at the Pentagon’s $59 billion Overseas Contingency Operations account.

Liberal internationalists, neoconservatives, and defense hawks in both parties will predictably shutter at even a mention of the United States doing less around the world—viewing any U.S. reassessment as a pullback of America's global influence. Those who advocate for a little more restraint, prudence, and strategic discipline are far too often derisively castigated.

Yet how exceptional will the U.S. continue to be if its political leadership simply carries on with the status quo, unconditionally subsiding our ally’s national defense without a guarantee that they will eventually bolster their own defense budgets?  And how strong will the country be if its own financial house isn’t in order?

We can only hope that the Trump administration will authorize a top-to-bottom strategic review of our national security policy, however unpopular it may be with certain quarters in Washington and on the op-ed pages of the country's major newspapers.  Before providing the check, U.S. officials first need to figure out and justify what they want to spend the money on.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Washington Examiner on February 6, 2017. Read more HERE