Who wants to boost defense spending in 2020? Not Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the presumptive chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
He argues that before the Pentagon even thinks about asking for more money, he wants to see an analysis of where the department can save money.
It seems like a common-sense approach—especially when you consider that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made “business reform” one of his top three priorities when he took the helm of the Defense Department. The Pentagon’s latest National Defense Strategy reiterated that commitment to find savings.
Eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse is always a worthy goal, and one that deserves more attention. But there are limits to what this can accomplish, and it is no substitute for a properly resourced defense budget.
Mattis’ campaign to “reform the department for greater performance and affordability” got off to a shaky start. The person in charge of leading the effort was dismissed after less than one year on the job, reportedly for lack of performance.
Under the acting chief management officer, the department claims it has generated nearly $4.4 billion in savings for 2018.
That’s nothing to sneeze at. But $4.4 billion is just 0.6 percent of the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget. It’s not nearly enough to offset the current 2 percent inflation rate, much less cover the funding increases needed to implement the National Defense Strategy.
This is not to say that savings should not be pursued. Like every government agency, the Pentagon should strive to get the most value out of every taxpayer dollar under its authority. There are certainly more savings to be had. For example, the Heritage Foundation’s Blueprint for Balance identifies ways the Pentagon could save more than $15 billion.
Some of the recommendations in the blueprint are politically challenging—such as reforming the military healthcare system or approving another round of Base Realignment and Closures. But lawmakers truly interested in finding substantial savings now will have to give up any notion of “easy pickings.”
As American Enterprise Institute fellow Mackenzie Eaglen notes, the Pentagon has pursued reform efforts for the better part of two decades. The proverbial low-hanging fruit has already been plucked, and in many cases, the leaves too.
Yet even if Congress and the administration pushed through every effective business reformavailable, the savings gained would fall well short of what’s needed to properly fund defense.
Sober assessments of what the Pentagon will need to execute the National Defense Strategy in coming years agree that even the most ambitious savings plans would not cover the gapbetween what’s currently budgeted and what’s needed. The recent report from the bipartisan commission charged with evaluating the National Defense Strategy says that implementing the strategy will require consistent, annual increases to the defense budget of between 3 and 5 percent.
Responsible defense budgeting must pursue both tracks simultaneously. It must create savings and increase spending so that our armed forces can invest in the right capabilities. Smith himself lauded the Army for following this dual track, focusing on six big modernization projects while moving resources away from projects that are of lower priority.
Then again, the Army will require congressional acquiescence to be able to actually move those resources. There is always the risk that a program the Army wants to defund will have a congressional champion who wants to keep it going.
Nothing is ever easy when it comes to defending our nation or finding the money needed to assure that those who fight to defend us can succeed. It is misguided to think that the Pentagon can develop the military we need simply by quashing waste, fraud, and abuse.
There’s just not enough there—and it’s not even close.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Examiner