The Future of Defense Spending: One Political Consequence

As President Obama appears before the Disabled Veterans of America this morning to tout the pending mission shift in Iraq, a bipartisan commission just supplied Congress last week with a study of our nation's military over the next 20 years, finding that we'll need to keep upping the size and advancing the equipment of our forces.

Sydney J. Freeberg, Jr. notes at National Journal that the commission, headed by Bill Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and George W. Bush National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, stresses growing the Navy to compete with China, among other things:

The Hadley-Perry "alternative QDR" deliberately looks 20 years out and particularly emphasizes building a larger Navy to counter the rising power of China. (Panel members include longtime expert blog contributor Maj. Gen. Robert Scales. The full document can be found here.)

On one hand, the panel writes, the military needs both more manpower and more modern equipment: "There is a significant and growing gap between the 'force structure' of the military -- its size and its inventory of equipment -- and the missions it will be called on to perform in the future.... [So] we propose an alternative force structure with emphasis on increasing the size of the Navy." On the other hand, the panel acknowledges, we cannot pay for what we already have: "The [currently planned] force structure, not including the additional increments the panel believes necessary, will be unsustainable unless growth in defense entitlements, increases in overhead costs, and cost overruns of major acquisition programs are all brought under control."

Our military size may not be hugely consequential in politics. The standing military force isn't nearly as controversial as the two wars we're fighting, and it's a significant, though not a massive, part of our federal budget: the $530.8 billion in baseline Department of Defense spending in 2010 accounts for a projected 14% of our total spending, scheduled (by the Obama administration's budget request) to grow by 3.4% in 2011. The administration wants to spend $162 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan this fiscal year, so a good 23% of our defense spending goes directly to those wars.

But here's one way a larger standing military, with continued advancements in technology and equipment, could affect politics: it will mean more defense contracts, which means more opportunity for waste, fraud, and abuse.

Waste in defense contracting, while it may not account for much of the budget, provides succinct and inflammatory instances of government inefficiency, and it opens the door to complaints about spending and bureaucracy from fiscal hawks. Which is why the Hadley Perry commission recommends a better acquisition process.

But the commission also finds that DoD has been "in a near constant state of acquisition reform since the implementation of Goldwater-Nichols in 1986," with those reforms producing "more structure and process... [without] notable improvement..."

Defense contracting reform, while a good idea, is hard to do effectively. Like it or not, an inflated political football of defense acquisitions will likely emerge as a byproduct of a growing, advancing military force.