Can the Defense Budget Shrink Without Risking National Security?

Are cuts of this size really possible in the defense budget without affecting military readiness? As Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and former White House defense adviser, writes:

If the secretary and the services want to protect the point of the spear (combat forces) and make sure it is nice and sharp (investment), they are going to have to tackle overhead, for real. And the back office scrub needs to be something a lot more serious than the usual budget drill .…

It means doing better than just "guessing" how many contractors are sitting at Pentagon desks and really counting them. And then deciding whether they are needed and those jobs really need to be done.

It means going with a scrub brush through all those civilian and commercial functions active-duty forces are performing, and making the same kind of decision about whether the military should be doing it, whether a civilian could do it more cheaply, and whether it needs to be done at all.

And it means doing the same with the civil service .…

And it means the scrub has to include not only the people in back office functions, but the back offices themselves. Which command flags can go, which offices are performing duplicative functions, which ones no longer have a mission?

(His full piece is worth reading.)

In fact, this is exactly the same “performance review” process we’ve discussed in the context of the entire government. Applying the standard 5 percent performance improvement that we’ve found in those contexts to just the civilian portion of just the Pentagon’s back-office operations would provide savings of roughly $6 billion—pretty close to Coburn’s proposed figure.

Hagel’s review didn’t even look at the civilian workforce. Instead, the secretary projected defense cuts of a half-trillion dollars in military capability over the next decade; not surprisingly, there has been gnashing of teeth over the supposed threat this poses to the nation’s security. For example. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution argued that it “would simply cut the U.S. military too much for the dangerous world in which we live”. Adams notes that—as with police and fire station closings—“[i]n the average defense drawdown (and that is where we are heading), we cut dollars invested for hardware purchases and we cut forces more deeply than we cut the budgets that support the back office.”

Cuts that are “disproportionately high,” as National Journal’s Sara Sorcher recently wrote, will “have to come from research, development, and procurement accounts—perhaps as much as 20 percent.” There are, of course, opponents of any number of Pentagon weapons systems. But for every budget hawk who sees a waste of money, there’s a defense hawk who sees an innovation essential to our survival.

What to do? Well, we could at least ensure that the weapons we buy do the job we purchased them to do. Great strides have been made in this area in the last several decades, but as always more work remains to be done. My first assignment as a professional writer was to cover the elimination of a Pentagon office designed to make sure that weapons actually worked. “Its sin,” I wrote, “was that it did its job too well.” Not long thereafter, Congress required the office’s reinstatement as a permanent directorate of Operational Testing & Evaluation (DOT&E).

Nevertheless, nearly two decades later, a 1997 Government Accountability Office study found that DOT&E’s effectiveness was still limited by the fact that it could not require that any weapon be proven to work before going to production or use in the field. A 2008 DOT&E report noted a number of recent examples that didn’t, such as the Hellfire missiles on the MH-60S Armed Helicopter Weapons System.  The missiles were designed to hang from external launchers on the chopper’s side, but when fired during a training incident—meaning that the weapon was considered ready for deployment—the force of the launch caused the launchers to break loose and pierce the copter’s fuselage. Add to that outright contractor fraud, which some critics contend runs as high as $100 billion a year, and there is clearly room for saving money on hardware without reducing the quantity or quality of what we buy.

Hopefully, in fact, we could strengthen national security by spending our defense dollars more efficiently.

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Eric Schnurer

Eric B. Schnurer is president of Public Works LLC, a public-policy and management-consulting firm that works with state and local governments across the country. He has served as a gubernatorial chief-of-staff and speechwriter or policy adviser to governors, senators, and presidential candidates.

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