The Mania for Austerity Finally Hits the Military

Filed in National by on February 26, 2014

You’ve been hearing this week about SecDef Chuck Hagel’s proposed budget for the DOD for FY15. This budget reduced the number of active duty troops, reduces the number of reserve troops, reduces salary increases, requires uniformed staff to contribute more to their health care, reduces retirement benefits and focuses growth in cybersecurity and in Special Forces. It looks to re-orient the Pentagon’s focus on being prepared for two land wars to dealing with current threats of terrorism. And this budget looks as though it accomodates some continued sequestration as well as real spending reduction. Remember as you hear more about this budget that if the US gets out of Afghanistan at the end of this year (as planned), the US won’t be engaged in regular ground wars anywhere. From the WaPo:

Mr. Hagel will take some first steps to deal with the controversial issue of pay and compensation, as the proposed budget would impose a one-year salary freeze for general and flag officers; basic pay for military personnel would rise by 1 percent. After the 2015 fiscal year, raises in pay will be similarly restrained, Pentagon officials say.

The fiscal 2015 budget also calls for slowing the growth of tax-free housing allowances for military personnel and would reduce the $1.4 billion direct subsidy provided to military commissaries, which would most likely make goods purchased at those commissaries more expensive for soldiers.

The budget also proposes an increase in health insurance deductibles and some co-pays for some military retirees and for some family members of active servicemen. But Mr. Hagel’s proposals do not include any changes to retirement benefits for those currently serving.

Under Mr. Hagel’s proposals, the entire fleet of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft would be eliminated. The aircraft was designed to destroy Soviet tanks in case of an invasion of Western Europe, and the capabilities are deemed less relevant today. The budget plan does sustain money for the controversial F-35 warplane, which has been extremely expensive and has run into costly delays.

In addition, the budget proposal calls for retiring the famed U-2 spy plane in favor of the remotely piloted Global Hawk.

The Navy would be allowed to purchase two destroyers and two attack submarines every year. But 11 cruisers will be ordered into reduced operating status during modernization.

From the WSJ, we hear from Hagel a defense of these cuts that ought to have the whiff of familiarity to anyone who has worked in an industry that finds that massive payrolls are no longer needed in a world that needs specialists and mechanization:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed a defense budget designed to turn the military’s attention away from the long ground war in Afghanistan and toward emerging cyberthreats from China and increasing challenges from al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Africa.

The Pentagon road map, sure to face fierce resistance from lawmakers in both parties, calls for reducing the military’s reliance on manpower-heavy troop buildups, investing instead in more agile special forces and cyberwarriors.

Of course, the objections to these cuts are coming from Congresspeople of both parties as well as Governors of both parties. It always interests me when the people who are front and center prescribing austerity for the people who can least afford it are apoplectic when one of the most wasteful government departments ever finally has to face the austerity music. But let’s remind ourselves how much we actually spend on defense:

American taxpayers spend all of this money to defend the rest of the world who won’t spend to defend themselves. If anything, re-orienting Pentagon focus on cybersecurity and terrorism gives sit some running room to STOP being the world’s policeman. Not that I’m holding my breath over that, but that policy space could be created implementing this budget. The challenge, of course, are the people who don’t mind telling you with a straight face that you have to take cuts in Social Security and Medicare for the Good of the Budget, but who will insist that DOD spending is somehow not big driver of the budget problem.

But what about cutting all of the waste? There’s been a steady stream of reporting over the past year about the waste and abuse at the DOD. Bloomberg identifies five places the DOD could cut back — four of them on weapons and vehicles that either no one wants or have massive budget overruns with questionable system effectiveness. There’s probably a trillion dollars that have been wasted here, meaning that this is a far richer target that food stamps. (And let’s not forget that even SecDef Gates admitted that the Pentagon wouldn’t pass an audit — a thing they do require all of their contractors to do.)But:

Why is sensible military budgeting so difficult? Because lawmakers, including small-government Republicans, protect defense business in their home states with the ferocity of Spartans. Even if the Pentagon offered up the cuts we’ve outlined here, Congress would almost certainly reject them. The senators and representatives don’t have the political courage to face voters and tell them that the republic simply does not need the weapon under construction in their hometown.

Bloomberg has an even more detailed investigative series on some of the most flawed and expensive DOD systems survive in spite of the expense and uncertainty. It isn’t a pretty picture — especially in a time when both Republicans and Democrats say the words about bringing the budget under control, this is the place that they completely collude to tolerate the worst budget performance possible. And interestingly, all of this cost overrun and system failure is being managed by the private sector, who everyone promised would do it all better.

How about this wasteful bit of business noted by Jonathan Turley?

We recently saw how they prefer to deliver bags of money to Karzai, buy Russian aircraft that Afghans can’t fly or maintain, or build huge buildings to be then torn down unused. Of course, no one is ever fired for constructing massive buildings that no one wants only to tear them down. After all, these are contracts going to powerful companies with friends in the government. Now, we buying huge planes at $50 million a pop only to roll them directly from the factories into mothballs because no one wants them. To make this even more incomprehensible, we are not even making the cargo planes. Like the Russian helicopters that the Afghans cannot fly, we are buying the cargo planes from Italy . . . and we are continuing to order more as we struggle to find places to dump them.

The dozen Italian-built C-27J Spartans have been shipped to an Air Force facility in Arizona dubbed “the boneyard.” We are ordering five more, which are expected to be immediately sent with the others into mothballs. The Air Force has spent $567 million on 21 of the planes which will join some 4,400 other aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles at the boneyard — more than $35 billion of unused airplanes.

Why order planes to be immediately mothballed? Ohio’s senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman wanted them to give a mission for Mansfield Air National Guard Base and to save 800 jobs. So we will spend $567 million to save 800 jobs. Wouldn’t it have been easier to give half a million to each of their constituents and save the rest of the money?

Why, yes it would.

Even conservatives have gotten on the bandwagon — Senator Tom Coburn has a report with his take on wasteful spending by the DOD (noting that almost $68B can be saved over 10 years by eliminating redundant spending that has little to no bearing on real defense). The American Conservative lists out 8 items that could improve the DOD budget and even calls out the Republican hypocrisy on not facing up to this:

Republican leaders claim that government spending to create jobs is a giant waste. But then they argue that such spending for military jobs is necessary to help the economy. Many openly argue that the defense budget is a jobs program. Think though of how many jobs the talented, ambitious people in the defense establishment could create in the private sector. Cutting fat, not meat is the important need. But faced with even marginal cuts to the defense budget, Republicans threaten voters like big city Democrats warning that the opposition will first cut firemen and policemen while leaving untouched all the fat, waste, pensions and welfare in city budgets. There are places we can cut without sacrificing effectiveness, and sequestration can help us find them.

So would eliminating waste, fraud and abuse save the DOD budget from the kinds of staff and benefits cuts proposed? Probably not, but I won’t pretend to know that. What I do know is that we have thrown a very great deal of money at stuff we just won’t need and isn’t working all that well to deal with threats that aren’t top tier. Google will serve up plenty more articles on Defense Department Waste, so there has been a good deal of industry around people working to really define the issue. I don’t have a problem with cutting back the DOD — either reducing its waste or reducing its mission. Hagel’s budget doesn’t quite go far enough for me, but it is a good step in the right direction.

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  1. Jason330 says:

    This post does a great job exposing the basic truth – we are paying off a bunch of very well connected welfare cheats. John McCain and Dick Cheney regard that as the highest and best use of tax money, but essentially that’s the deal.

  2. auntie dem says:

    I dunno but I feel like our economy is made up of fans, feathers, and balloons. There’s the Military Industrial Establishment and the Banksters & Wall Street. It isn’t clear what value these actually generate. Like it noted above, the MIE is a pretty inefficient way of redistributing tax dollars. It would be easier to just pay the workers direct. Maybe they could fix roads and bridges. Maybe they could teach science and engineering. Maybe they could manufacture something that isn’t Chinese crap. I’m using a 40+ year old Singer sewing machine because it’s a good machine and I couldn’t replace it today with something as sturdy and reliable. I’d like to buy a new one but there is nothing out there to compete with the old one.

  3. Jason330 says:

    “Maybe they could fix roads and bridges. Maybe they could teach science and engineering.”

    That’s what the Romans Legions did because kicking the Gauls ass only occupied maybe 5 few weeks a year.

  4. Liberal Elite says:

    “But then they argue that such spending for military jobs is necessary to help the economy. Many openly argue that the defense budget is a jobs program.”

    Wouldn’t it be better to just pay people to dance in the streets?

  5. liberalgeek says:

    let’s pay them to bury all of our power and communication lines…

  6. Steve Newton says:

    First off, The Nation published a study in 2012 that demonstrates that military spending is far less of an economic stimulus than just about anything else you could do with the money.

    http://www.thenation.com/article/167811/dont-buy-spin-how-cutting-pentagons-budget-could-boost-economy

    Second, my concern here is that the mania for cutting benefits for troops is sleight of hand by the big contractors. It is sort of like criticizing NFL players for making millions while the club owners walk away with billions.

    One of the proposed cuts is the elimination of $1 Billion of the $1.4 Billion surplus to military commissaries that would raise their prices for military and retiree families to almost exactly that of grocery stores. The issue here (sorry I don’t have the link right now but I’ll find it later) is that for the typical middle-rank enlisted or younger field-grade officer with a family of four that single change amounts to a $3,000/year pay cut, and drive as many as 100,000 retiree families below the poverty line, while what we are supposedly protecting through that “austerity” is the profits of McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, etc. etc.

    I will give Chuck Hagel credit on one level: he understands that the way to reduce personnel costs is to reduce the number of personnel rather than the benefits that each troop receives.

    Don’t get me wrong: I am not for austerity in the military, I am for cuts that hit closer to 40% of the current military budget than anything under discussion. What we are seeing now is the same shuffle we saw during the Clinton years with defense spending reductions–a reaction designed to hollow out the force while protecting the profits.

  7. bamboozer says:

    I expect real reform and troop reduction will prove impossible. The American Empire will not end, the Military Industrial Complex denied it’s profits or states, cities and towns lack employment and revenue from non essential military bases. But any movement in that direction is welcome, no matter how doomed it is by the corruption and greed of America’s politicians.

  8. Jason330 says:

    That’s the spirit!