On cutting the defense budget

Two weeks ago, Celeste Robinson penned an op-ed (“It’s time to deflate the military budget”) in which she argued that the defense budget should be reduced. I do not normally see eye-to-eye with Robinson on many issues, but I agree with her assertion that the US defense budget is bloated. The United States spends more on defense than any other country in the world. The proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2015 is $575.0 billion dollars, down $6.2 billion from FY 2014, and down $116 billion dollars from the post-9/11 peak in FY 2010. However, despite this downwards trend, the defense budget will always remain large, because of the numerous programs the military runs, from the obvious—helicopters, ships and bullets—to the less obvious—healthcare and day care for soldiers and their families and the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. As the Global War on Terror winds down and the Sequester kicks in, the defense budget is going to shrink, and the real question is how to best balance the two largest competing priorities: personnel and weapons systems. Today’s warfighters enjoy a generous benefits system, but it is wildly expensive. Personnel costs amount to well over $100 billion each year; they reached over $160 billion in FY 2011, and procurement cost the country $128 billion.

The Department of Defense is currently procuring the costliest weapons system in history, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which is expected to cost roughly 1.5 trillion dollars over the course of the fighter’s life cycle. While much of this money has already been spent, mothballing this program will save money that can be spent on more effective programs and further research and development. The Littoral Combat Ship, the Navy’s misguided attempt at countering asymmetric threats is of dubious combat effectiveness, and at a cost of 2.5 billion dollars each, makes a good case for its own cancellation.
Current Department of Defense plans in FY 2015 call for reducing pay and benefits for the military and their families to save money, which can be spent on the F-35, Littoral Combat Ship and other troubled and wasteful weapons systems. The Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Michael Barrett, has gone so far as to say that reducing pay will increase discipline and financial accountability in the ranks. Hollowing the force from within by reducing pay and benefits for military servicemen and women is an insult to their sacrifice and reveals dangerously misplaced priorities in which troubled pet projects that do not make the country more secure are favored over taking care of the force that has fought the country’s wars for us.

Instead, the Department of Defense and Congress should mothball the F-35 and cut the Littoral Combat Ship, which would free up billions of dollars that can be reinvested into maintaining personnel benefits. The defense budget is going to shrink no matter what, but the question remains how the Department of Defense and Congress will allocate the remaining money, to problematic weapons systems or salaries and benefits to military personnel and their families.