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As the Obama administration begins its final year, the most interesting thing about the final defense budget, $583 billion, it has submitted to Congress is what it means for the next commander in chief. Whoever wins in November, President Obama is handing him or her a huge headache.

There is a defense budget crisis on the horizon, but the Pentagon is hiding its head in the sand. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s reluctance to deal with it threatens to waste billions and saddle the next president with a political time bomb before she/he even sets foot in the White House.

In his preview of what will likely be his last budget, Carter said Feb. 2 that the Pentagon was taking “the long view.” Unfortunately, it’s not long enough.

According to a Jan. 27 report by budget guru Todd Harrison at the centrist Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), many of the new weapon systems the Pentagon plans to build will reach their peak funding requirements at the same time, around 2022. This is known in defense jargon as a modernization “bow wave” and, given budget caps and limited resources, there will not be enough money to pay for it.

What happens when the Pentagon spends billions to develop new weapons that it cannot afford to actually build? It cancels them. Business-as-usual. But the price is high.

As CSIS points out, 18 major Pentagon programs were terminated in the 2000s, but only after the nation wasted $59 billion on them. That $59 billion could have bought Army brigades, Navy carriers groups, Air Force fighter wings, or Marine infantry.  Or it could have bought better public schools, more alternative energy or more snowplows. Instead it went down a rat hole.

This is what happens when the Defense Department’s — and Congress’ — eyes are bigger than its wallet.

Here is a radical thought; let’s not do this again. What if the Pentagon only started programs that it had high confidence it could actually finish?

For example, CSIS identifies the 10 largest Pentagon acquisition programs through 2030, including the F-35 joint strike fighter, the Arleigh Burke destroyer and the new Ford-class aircraft carrier. In addition to these conventional weapons, the list includes major investments in all three “legs” of a new US nuclear arsenal — new submarines, long-range bombers and land-based missiles. Over the next 15 years, these 10 programs alone will cost about $700 billion, or about 60 percent of all modernization funding.

Just to meet the peak of the bow wave in 2022, the Pentagon would need to find an additional $130 billion. Good luck with that. It is much more likely that some major programs will get delayed or canceled. The question is, how much money will the Pentagon pour down the drain before it gets serious about cuts?

As we have learned the hard way, the Pentagon could save billions if it cut the fat now. And we can. We have all the information we need. In fact, it’s a no-brainer.

The top 10 list pits new conventional weapons against new nuclear weapons. Which do we need more? Conventional weapons, the ones we actually use. In fact, as part of the budget for fiscal 2017, Carter is adding new money to fight the Islamic State, to beef up NATO forces in Europe to counter Russia’s push into Ukraine, and to boost cyber defenses.

In stark contrast, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and have no role against the major threats we face, such as terrorism, global warming or cyber attacks.

And yet the Obama administration has launched a 30-year, $1 trillion effort to rebuild the US nuclear arsenal from the ground up.

“Somebody has to get serious,” Ellen O. Tauscher, a former undersecretary of state for arms control, told the New York Times in January. “We’re spending billions of dollars on a status quo that doesn’t make us any safer.”

Here is how we get serious. According to a Feb. 3 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), Obama’s $1 trillion plan is unnecessary and unaffordable. CAP lays out a plan to save $120 billion while still retaining a formidable nuclear arsenal — reduce the number of nuclear-armed submarines, cancel the new cruise missile, cancel a new tactical nuclear weapon for Europe and forgo a new land-based missile.

If these cuts are not made, according to the report, “the shape of the next nuclear arsenal will likely be set by the vagaries of congressional politics as they seek to curtail whichever programs happen to face cost overruns.” A sobering thought.

A new president will take office next January. President Obama could do him or her a favor by dealing with the modernization bow wave now, by canceling or delaying low-priority nuclear weapon programs and saving the nation billions of dollars.


Tom Z. Collina is director of policy a the Ploughshares Fund.

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