How to Cut the Military Budget Without Touching Defense

Asked for comment, Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon press officer, said "the DoD budget is aligned to strategic priorities we have identified to keep America safe and maintain the strongest military in the world. Over the past several years we have redoubled our efforts to make better use of the taxpayer's defense dollar and meet our fiscal responsibilities."

Coburn was frank in stating that his advocacy for spending military funds only on military functions may put him out of synch with his own party. "There is," he said at a press conference, "a little problem in terms of the Republican Conference ... having a blind eye on spending: 'It's OK to cut spending anywhere except the Defense Department.'"

Apparently referring to claims by House Republicans and Mitt Romney this year that the defense budget had been grievously cut by the Obama administration, Coburn said it is time to "undermine a little bit of the BS. There has been no real cuts yet to the Pentagon. There just hasn't been the hoped-for, desired increases in spending, so therefore if we didn't get the increase in spending, we call that a cut in Washington."

Coburn, interestingly, does not sit on the Senate Armed Services committee, whose members generally depend on defense contractors to finance their political campaigns -- a circumstance that may actually have given him clearer insights. But his report was mostly based on a dive into the defense budget by a legislative assistant named Jeremy Hayes, a former Army captain who colleagues say deeply understands the Pentagon's proclivity for strange spending.

Waste and inefficiency in Pentagon spending was also targeted last week by a panel of four retired generals, a retired admiral, and 10 other former officials and experts organized by the Stimson Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington. It concluded that the Pentagon could readily absorb as much as $550 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years -- the amount that would be required under a so-called "sequestration" law -- "with acceptable levels of risk."

Those cuts would include trims in the size of the Army, fewer air squadrons, and a smaller missile defense effort. But most of the reductions advocated by the panel could come from more efficient uses of manpower -- including cutting the number of military officers doing civilian work, implementing new pay practices, and improving weapons contracting.

Our hands-down favorite, so to speak, among the Pentagon-funded work targeted by Coburn for downright foolishness was a UCLA anthropologist's examination of whether men holding pistols are considered taller, stronger, and more masculine than those holding a range of other objects, such as caulking guns, drills, saws and paintbrushes. He found they were.

The study was financed by the Air Force's Office of Scientific Research under a $681,387 grant, according to Coburn's report. It's hard to figure out the relevance to flying, unless someone in the service's acquisition office is now planning to order images of pistol-packing men spray-painted onto the noses of fighter jets, perhaps on the theory that dogfight opponents might be scared off and costly air-to-air missiles conserved.

Protests can be expected soon from the home improvement industry's Washington trade association, speaking up for caulk-wielding contractors.

This article was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity.

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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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