How to Cut the Military Budget Without Touching Defense

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Senator Tom Coburn says slashing spending on better beef jerky and superfluous schools could save cash without hurting America's war preparedness.

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Reuters

What do scientific experiments involving babies and robots have to do with excessively costly elementary schools and low-priced grocery stores for the elderly?

The answer is, these endeavors are all financed by the Department of Defense's $629 billion annual budget, in what one senator depicts as a spending free-for-all that adds to the federal deficit while diverting resources from genuine military needs.

The examples are cited in a 73-page report issued last week by Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, that describes how cash-rich the Pentagon is and how distorted some of its spending priorities have become. "We highlight, as in every other agency, a lot of the stupid things that are happening," said Coburn, a blunt-spoken family physician, at a press conference last week.

Coburn's report suggests that the massive infusion of funds into the military budget over the past decade -- it grew by two-thirds from 2000 to 2009 -- has prompted some scientific researchers to treat the Defense Department's budget like a piggy bank for questionable projects.

He mentions the Office of Naval Research's recent effort to track how babies interact with robots, which concluded after much observation that "if you want to build a companion robot, it is not sufficient to make it look human ... the robot must be able to interact socially." The Pentagon defended the study, funded under a $450,000 grant, as necessary to "enhance and improve warfighter ability" to work with robots. But Coburn's report called it a useless confirmation of "common sense," with no connection to national security.

Coburn also noted that disease victims and medical specialists have pressured the Pentagon into spending more than a billion dollars annually for research that is often not related to injuries experienced on the battlefield, such as breast and prostate cancer. The Government Accountability Office concluded last February that these programs are often poorly coordinated with civilian health agencies, and their administration by the Pentagon eats up around $45 million in overhead and management.

Overall Pentagon spending for research and development now totals $73 billion, Coburn's report states, an amount that exceeds the total spent for that purpose by all other federal agencies and includes much research that does not "enhance the technological superiority of our soldiers or improve the defense of our nation."

His report also highlighted the fact that military ranks are now top-heavy with generals and admirals, pushing up defense costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars because each has a large retinue of aides. The current proportion is seven general officers for every 10,000 troops, two more than during the Cold War. "We almost now have an admiral for every ship in the Navy," Coburn said.

"We almost now have an admiral for every ship in the Navy."

Coburn also said the military is needlessly operating 64 schools on 16 military installations around the country, at a cost averaging $50,000 per student. The national average for other schools is $11,000 per student. According to the report, the Pentagon picks up the tab mostly out of inertia, continuing a practice begun when public schools were not as integrated as military families were.

"People don't join the Army because there's a school on base," Coburn noted, suggesting the schools be closed.

Similarly, he urged the department to stop running a chain of 254 cut-rate grocery stores, known as commissaries, that mostly benefit military retirees and are often only a few blocks away from Safeway, Costco, or other stores. He said the Pentagon can save $9.1 billion over 10 years by shutting them down.

The Pentagon should also keep its nose out of product development efforts being pursued by private industry or by other federal departments, Coburn's report said, citing $1.5 million the military is spending to create more palatable beef jerky -- on top of more than $600,000 being spent by others in the government.

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R. Jeffrey Smith is managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom.

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