In March of this year, the inspector general at the Department of Defense (DOD) issued a report detailing $419 million in “improper” Pentagon travel payments over the last fiscal year.
Surely you remember that revealing exposé of Pentagon misfeasance. No?
That’s understandable. It’s more likely that you, like most Americans, missed that report entirely. It never picked up much traction beyond Beltway news outlets. After all, $419 million is a drop in the bucket of a $600 billion defense budget, and stories of fiscal mismanagement at the Pentagon have been routine for years.
But to me, this is an important story that demonstrates more than the problems of an inefficient bureaucracy. It also represents a monumental challenge to those who oppose any weakening of our defense posture.
That challenge: How do we credibly make the case to the American people that we need to protect our defense investments when the Pentagon squanders billions of taxpayer dollars every single year?
Anyone watching the debate over defense spending in Washington understands that we are losing that battle. The debate has deteriorated into an exercise in bean counting, focusing only on how much the defense budget should or should not be cut. The indiscriminate “meat ax” sequestration cuts that began in March are just one manifestation of this dysfunctional approach.
What we should be doing instead is determining the strategic needs of our nation and the world in a post-9/11, post-Iraq/Afghanistan, austerity-minded environment, and talking about smarter defense investment. That conversation should center on two questions:
How is the Pentagon actually spending defense dollars now?
What needs to change in defense investment to better confront emerging threats in the years to come, given the realities imposed by a $16.7 trillion national debt?
As both a defense hawk and a deficit hawk — the two are not mutually exclusive — I’ve wrestled with both of these questions. The first step must be getting a clear picture of how our defense dollars are spent. That means we need a full audit of the Pentagon, an idea with bipartisan support that remarkably has never happened.
An audit will give us a clearer picture of the costs of personnel and benefits, weapons acquisition and procurement, and other outlays, and guide decisions about how funding might be better allocated. It will help us find the fat, so we can spare the muscle.
In some respects, this debate is already happening in piecemeal fashion. For example, Representative Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, should be commended for his efforts to find sensible defense-spending reforms that would replace indiscriminate sequestration cuts. Likewise, Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, has been willing to call out defense-spending projects that brief well on paper but have cost us billions in overruns and run into decades in delays and — worst of all — will never see the field of battle.
But given the parochial nature of defense procurement spending, this debate can’t take place in fits and starts. We need a comprehensive approach to “right-sizing” defense spending that takes place across all DOD programs. I don’t claim to have all the answers on this (for many of them, see Michael O’Hanlon’s book, Wounded Giant), but I do know that we quite literally cannot afford the status quo — fiscally or strategically.
Finally, defense hawks have to accept that it’s not enough to provide criticisms. We must articulate what a strong, effective military will look like in an age of fiscal belt-tightening, when reducing the national debt is actually a matter of national security. We also must articulate what a strong, effective military response to today’s global threats will look like because, as we’ve seen in recent days, the world is still very dangerous place.
Since the president’s second inauguration three months ago, we’ve seen heightened tensions with North Korea, an unpredictable rogue state that boasts an arsenal of short- and medium-term missiles and a fast-approaching nuclear capacity.
A civil war is raging in Syria, pitting an Iranian proxy state — an American foe — against groups of rebels, some of which have very close ties to al-Qaeda — another American foe. To make matters worse, the fate of chemical weapons is at stake. There are no good options in Syria, just less bad ones, but wishing the problem away is not a substitute for strategy, and U.S. security and interests will be impacted by the outcome in Damascus.
Here at home, the deadly Boston Marathon attack on April 15, which now looks to be an episode of foreign-inspired terrorism and possibly part of a wider “sleeper cell” network, illustrated that a dozen years after 9/11, the threat of terror — under our nose and from the farthest-flung corners of the earth — remains a stark and ever-present reality.
These threats — and others like them — require both continued investment in cutting edge technologies, but also the recognition that sheer manpower — overt and covert, on the ground, in the water, and in the skies — must not be cut for the sake of deficit reduction. Rather than cut this “muscle,” defense hawks should argue for reforms to antiquated procurement processes, obvious bureaucratic redundancies, and over-sized headquarters elements. An audit would help expose these, and other, areas for reform.
Since 2009, this administration and war-weary Americans have attempted to disengage from a dangerous world. And after twelve years of overseas conflicts, the desire to withdraw is understandable. The problem is that the world, its troubles, and their impact on our interests and security have not withdrawn. We need a defense investment strategy that can address reality abroad and fit our fiscal reality at home.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. For more proposals on defense spending, see CVA’s 2012 “Defend & Reform” series.