With the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the arrival of a new Congress, Washington leaders should seize a new window of opportunity to save the Pentagon billions of dollars while improving America’s military posture. If past serves as prologue, however, it is more likely Congress will usher in another era of out-of-control defense spending for a military ill-suited to deal with current threats and a new war overseas.
An important shift is taking place in Washington. Secretary Hagel was brought on by the Obama administration to lead the Defense Department through the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan, a pivot to Asia, and what was supposed to be a post-war period to collectively breathe and right-size American forces. Instead, events in Iraq, Syria, Russia and elsewhere overshadowed that plan and have led to calls for increased Pentagon spending.
President Obama has requested an additional $5 billion in war funds in the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, or OCO, for operations in Iraq and Syria. This request sits on top of $58.6 billion in OCO funding the administration originally requested along with the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2015 base budget of $496 billion.
The OCO account is a separate budget for the Pentagon that was created to pay for war operations and to reduce the need for emergency funding bills. Unfortunately, as the U.S. commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has declined, the OCO account has become a slush fund for other programs unrelated to the conflicts overseas. This is largely because the war fund is not subject to spending caps, which makes it an attractive vehicle for the Pentagon to pad its base budget and for Congress to pay for pet projects.
Some lawmakers are rightfully skeptical of the Pentagon’s $5 billion request, since it seems apparent that the administration’s original $58.6 billion OCO request contains more funds than needed for projected war operations. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has estimated that the original 2015 war fund request includes more than $30 billion in programs that are not related to operations in Afghanistan.
As we move into the debate over the Pentagon’s 2016 budget next year, claims that the Pentagon is facing massive and crippling budget cuts are misleading. In fact, the Pentagon will receive approximately the same amount of money in fiscal year 2016 that it is likely to receive this year. At roughly half a trillion dollars, the Pentagon’s base budget will remain at historically high levels, matching the peak in the Cold War in constant dollars. And within that historically high amount, there are signs of rampant waste. Investigations have revealed that tens of billions of dollars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been wasted on projects with no practical purpose, or simply lost through fiscal mismanagement.
If lawmakers are truly concerned about containing spending to control the deficit, they will focus on eliminating the billions of dollars that are wasted at the Pentagon every year and invest in only those programs we need to keep us safe. Even more importantly, they will work with the new secretary of defense, likely Ashton Carter, to implement the common-sense, cost saving measures the Pentagon has already asked for, including modest compensation reforms and the closure of excess bases.
America cannot return to the days of unrestrained Pentagon spending, nor can we suffer a Congress that is negligent in its oversight authority. Those who are using the war with ISIS to argue for increasing Pentagon spending are manipulating a difficult situation for their own political purposes.
The Pentagon doesn’t need more money; it needs clearer policies and more effective management. Simply throwing money at complex problems is never good policy. Hopefully the next Secretary of Defense and the new Congress will find a way to work together to achieve both of these goals.
Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr., (ret.) is chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.