In his latest defense strategy, President Obama outlined a scaling back of U.S. military ambitions. While that strategy had some shortcomings, it was a concrete first step toward a leaner defense budget.
Republicans tend to react negatively to the prospect of defense cuts. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has been openly scornful about defense cuts with reporters, telling them, “Time after time after time, we found that [cutting the defense budget] was the wrong strategy.” Conservative defense wonks and strategists have expressed similar reservations regarding budget cuts compromising national security.
Some, however, see defense austerity as an opportunity for Republicans to eliminate waste. While the broader strategic issues of national strategy need more public debate – the basic question of America’s place in the world remains weirdly unsettled – there are huge gaps in the budget that can be closed to create substantial cost savings. This would reinforce the traditional Republican strengths of promoting smaller, smarter government, while also addressing the push from the Democrats to cut defense spending and having a minimal effect on the core strategic interests of the country.
For example, there’s an enormous amount of redundancy built into the system. One part of that system is contracting, which is rife with cost overruns, poor strategic management and sloppy accountability mechanisms. While the big-ticket items like the F-35 fighter or the Littoral Combat Ship – both of which have seen costs soar several times over their original (already high) cost estimates – are often subject to public scorn, it’s important to remember that a huge amount of waste is occurred on smaller-ticket items, albeit across countless misadministered contracts.
In my previous career as a contractor in the defense industry, one of my duties was responding to RFPs, or requests for proposals. This is the bidding process by which defense firms acquire government contracts. Once those contracts are awarded, the contractor’s work is monitored by a Contracting Officer Representative, or COR. At the half-dozen or so agencies where I worked, I never saw a COR who had the time or resources to track all the contractor activities on a given contract.
Similarly, the structure of these contracts was not based on accomplishing a specific goal, but rather on putting “butts in seats” to reflect the priority of a particular project. When the government decides an issue is important, it spends boatloads of cash to either hire or reassign workers to that issue – often a mixture of government employees and contractors. This increase is often not related to the volume of work on hand – rather, it assumes that more workers equals more importance. Such a reductive mindset encourages wasteful spending, and it’s rampant in the DOD.
There are, of course, countless small ways that addressing these and similar kinds of waste in the system could generate enormous cost savings. When I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, for example, I spent several weeks waiting around to hitch a ride on military transports to get to other parts of the country. I saw dozens of other contractors doing the same: because none of us ever wore a uniform, our movement was less important than the soldiers who also needed to move around. However, our contracts required us to charge the government for the time we spent waiting in the airfield terminals: the government literally paying us to sit around and watch terrible movies or play handheld videogames. At the time, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and found that just at that one base, transportation delays cost the government millions of dollars per week.
Of course, addressing waste in the system can also be tricky. In some cases, it means identifying redundant programs and eliminating them – resulting in unemployed workers, and thus nervous Congressmen who have to answer for voting to cut a jobs program somewhere. In other cases, political issues can get in the way: counterterrorism spending has ballooned under both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and now covers everything from drone-based assassination programs to intelligence collection to foreign aid. There’s a lot of redundancy in that network of spending, but cutting that budget is politically risky. Should an attack even be attempted – to say nothing of succeeding — no Representative or Senator would want to be identified as having voted to cut the counterterrorism budget. It would be political suicide.
This is where the GOP can step in and. The current defense system – millions of soldiers, contractors, and government civilians working on projects too numerous and overlapping to count, understand, and coordinate – is unwieldly and clearly inefficient. By staking out a claim, early on, that one way to bring the federal budget under control is to identify wasteful and redundant spending at all agencies, including defense agencies, they can get ahead of the public debate over budgeting, while still targeting the entitlement programs they want to cut, and addressing the Democrats’ demand for a smaller defense budget.
All this requires adopting a long-term view of the budgeting process, including defense reform. Sadly, long-term strategic thinking just doesn’t seem to be a part of the current political climate anymore.
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist at TheAtlantic.com.