Wholesale Cuts to Defense Spending May Hurt Security

As fiscal pressures mount, members of Congress face tough choices about federal spending priorities. Both sides agree that Congress must evaluate federal spending on its merits and decide whether it is both constitutional and necessary. This examination will not occur in a vacuum, given that America's military is extending its mission in Afghanistan while facing new challenges around the globe.

Fiscal responsibility and national security are not mutually exclusive. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen recently noted, our rising national debt is a national security threat. Interest on the debt is projected to roughly equal our defense budget by next year. However, drastic or hasty cuts in defense spending will likely undermine the physical security upon which our nation's financial security rests.

Policymakers have been demanding that defense spending be "on the table" for cuts without acknowledging that defense is being cut and has been cut substantially over the past few years. Given the sweeping cuts Congress approved as part of the fiscal year 2010 and now 2011 military budgets, and the large number of process and efficiency reforms under way in the Defense Department, arbitrary cuts could seriously damage the foundation of America's military strength.

Yes, Congress should scrutinize every penny and continue to pursue greater efficiency. But members should also identify responsible reforms that are realistic and achievable and reforms that pose minimal risk to the military's capabilities and readiness.

Our research shows that savings amounting to more than $70 billion — and possibly up to $90 billion — can be achieved from a reform package that balances reduced costs with enduring military strength. The package includes some of the efficiencies initiatives that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed, including senior personnel freezes among both civilian and military employees and closing redundant offices.

Our reform package also includes suggestions the co-chairmen of the president's deficit commission proposed. We agree, for example, with proposals to freeze salaries and bonuses of Defense Department civilian staffers for three years, and to replace military personnel performing commercial services — such as trash collection and fire prevention — with lower-paid civilian personnel. A 2006 study by the Center for Naval Analyses indicated that the Navy could save $750 million annually and reduce the number of sailors in uniform by about 21,700 by shifting some military functions to civilians, such as basic supply, food service and ships' services on all surface combatants. The Navy could save $390 million annually by applying the same model to aircraft carriers.

However, we disagree with the co-chairmen's proposals to reduce overall procurement by 15 percent, including suggestions to cancel the V-22 Osprey, terminate the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, kill the Marine Corps version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, cut Air Force and Navy F-35 JSF procurement by half, and reduce the number of military personnel in Europe and Asia by one-third. These cuts would damage U.S. military strength.

We propose three additional reforms. One is to expand the use of private-public partnerships for performance-based logistics, which include equipment repair, supply transport, storage, goods delivery and information technology. These partnerships can improve military supply and distribution systems while saving up to $30 billion annually.

The second is to modernize base operations and defense supply and maintenance systems. The Pentagon operates four retail systems on bases; these may be consolidated into one. In addition, changing the depot pricing structure for repairs, and allowing more private contractors to maintain depots, will achieve significant savings.

Finally, we suggest reducing wear and tear on military hardware by adopting measures to prevent corrosion and to change how some equipment is used. We also advocate increasing the use of multiyear contracts and block upgrades for new equipment, which allow the military to take advantage of more efficient production and cost-effective improvements to existing platforms.

Recently, Congress smartly approved a multiyear contract to purchase 124 F/A-18s and E/A-18s from 2011 to 2013. According to Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter, this contract will yield more than $600 million in savings, a savings of about 7 percent.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Mackenzie Eaglen Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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