An Opportunity for Defense Savings

By Robert Moore

In Washington, one particular theme animates nearly every conversation about government spending: sequestration and the “readiness” of the U.S. military. But with the budget agreement of early 2018, Pentagon spending was boosted by almost $150 billion over the next two years. Discussion has now shifted towards how this new budget will be spent.

For the defense community and our country’s military, a two-year budget reprieve should be viewed more as a supplemental bonus than a long-term solution—the budget caps linger on the horizon in 2020. The temptation may even be for military services to spend through their wish list now in the event that future budget negotiators are not as generous. Yet now that defense leaders have been given budgetary leeway to address readiness concerns, it is as important as ever to find opportunities for savings and return the military budget to a fiscally sustainable foundation.

As we look to the 2020 defense budget and beyond, there are multiple areas for savings and sensible reforms.

The highest cost to the Department of Defense (DoD) is the hundreds of thousands of American troops stationed outside our nation’s borders. The most obvious are in overseas contingencies like Afghanistan and Iraq, where our enduring presence in war zones has cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the last two decades, with estimates of total costs ranging into the trillions—Afghanistan will cost $45 billion this year alone. But our overseas posture also includes long-term stationing in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to act as deterrence or in anticipation of possible future conflict.

Some of largest concentrations of overseas American troops in countries like Germany and Japan are legacies of conflicts that took place over half a century ago. The costs of maintaining, provisioning, protecting, and moving service members and their families in and out of these bases—not to mention assistance to host countries—draws from so many funding streams within the Department of Defense that it is nearly incalculable.

It’s time for Washington to ask—and the American people must demand that they answer—if our overseas posture and activity is really making us trillions of dollars safer?

Following the military’s exit from the Vietnam War, defense leaders took a number of steps toward creating a professional, all-volunteer active force in response to deficiencies seen in the conscription-based military. This force has proven effective in conventional warfare in recent decades, but such manpower and equipment has also become increasingly expensive to maintain. Between 2001 and 2011, military personnel funding costs nearly doubled, and have continued to climb.

The most effective way of addressing this issue is to reform the balance between Active forces and less expensive Guard and Reserve personnel.

Following the first Gulf War, guard and reserve units began training to become more interchangeable with their active counterparts, then gained significant combat experience in during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where they were frequently deployed. The Reserve Forces Policy Board, a statutorily mandated committee in the Pentagon, reported in 2014 that the reserve forces comprised 39 percent of the military end-strength for approximately nine percent of the Department’s budget. This confirms the previous assessment that reserve forces cost about one-third to maintain during peacetime compared to active forces.

While the United States should not solely rely on reserve forces, attempts to find a more efficient total force mixture have been stifled in part by inaccurate biases and assumptions about reservist capabilities.

Military leaders have consistently asked for—and been denied by Congress—a new Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round for years, despite the fact that recent estimates claim a capacity excess of nearly 20 percent in the DoD. No viable business could possibly sustain such a level of excess infrastructure without a shareholder revolt—an estimated $2 billion in annual recurring savings is wasted on unnecessary bases rather than increasing military value and lethality.

Congress must cast aside its political anxieties and authorize a new BRAC round as soon as possible.

Nearly half of the DoD’s budget is devoted to personnel costs, including hundreds of thousands of civilian workers and contractors. The men and women who volunteer to defend our country should be compensated for their service and sacrifice.

The bureaucratic systems through which uniformed and civilian employees are compensated are woefully archaic and decades behind private-sector standards for healthcare and retirement benefits. Recent findings and legislation have tried to address this problem by modernizing military retirement and providing some level of flexibility to career options and service, but enactment has been slow and solutions are often modified before they can make an impact.

If defense leaders don’t act quickly to address the growth of personnel costs, they will eclipse operational and development costs in the near future.

Serious leadership and thoughtful initiative is needed to put our nation’s defense on a sustainable and fiscally responsible foundation, or we will be doing a disservice to ourselves and to the men and women who defend our country.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities and a former foreign policy advisor for a Republican U.S. Senator.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on April 11, 2018. Read more HERE.