Christine Fox, the recently departed director of the Pentagon’s office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, is correct that there are no easy ways to identify savings in the defense budget [“Sequester Facts of Life: Stop Pretending Enforced Cuts Won’t Be Harmful,” Commentary, Sept. 16], but her conclusion that the cumulative effect of the Budget Control Act will be “some combination of a military that is much smaller, much less technologically advanced and much less ready than we have been accustomed to over the last 30 years” is an exaggeration for six reasons.
First, even with sequester, the defense budget will return in real dollars to the level of FY 2007, the penultimate year of the Bush administration, and remain there for the rest of the decade; I do not recall anyone complaining about the level of defense spending then. Moreover, this level is about $100 billion more than the size of the budget on 9/11.
Second, only the sequester portion of the Budget Control Act cuts defense spending. The first portion, of $486 billion, was a reduction in the projected level of defense spending — a reduction in planned increases, not a cut. Under this provision, the budget would have grown by $100 billion to $644 billion by 2021.
Third, 30 years ago, at the Cold War’s height, the defense budget in today’s dollars was at about the same level as it is today. And over the past 30 years, the base budget has averaged about $450 billion, 10 percent less than it is now.
Fourth, this downturn in defense spending pales in comparison to the drawdowns that occurred after Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War, when the defense budget dropped to about $370 billion. Moreover, since there was not a separate war budget for Korea and Vietnam, total defense spending for those wars was more than $100 billion less than the peak of defense spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fifth, the problems the Pentagon has in trying to rein in a budget that grew for an unprecedented 13 straight years are self-inflicted. Ms. Fox rightly laments the fact that Congress will not let the Pentagon reform compensation. But it was the Pentagon itself that originally proposed some changes which have undermined its financial health, like Tricare for Life, 50 percent retirement pay, and no fee increases for Tricare. Fox also fails to address why the Pentagon did not advocate a presidential veto when Congress gave annual pay raises over and above the appropriate level.
Sixth, Fox’s analysis ignores the broken procurement process that has squandered billions of dollars with little to show for it. As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said: “This [acquisition] system can now be said to be successful only in one respect: turning billions of taxpayer dollars into weapons systems that are consistently delivered late, flawed, and vastly over budget — if, that is, these systems are delivered at all.”
With proper leadership and management that is willing to make hard decisions and not look for the easy ways out or exaggerate the problem, this country can have a military better than we have been accustomed to over the past 30 years, especially with a budget that is higher than it was during the Cold War.
Assistant secretary of defense from 1981-85, Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.