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About that defense budget waste that Sen. Coburn has found…

When, on November 15th, Sen. Coburn published his report, The Department of Everything”, documenting non-military and wasteful items in the defense budget, the opponents of a strong defense jumped in joy. They thought they had finally found proof that the defense budget is full of waste and can be cut deeply without jeopardizing national security (not that they care about national security – they don’t).

Uninformed, ignorant journalists and columnists happily jumped on the defense cuts bandwagon. The Washington Times’ Emily Miller falsely claimed that:

“As Republican leaders battle President Obama over his insistence on taking half the Jan. 2 mandatory sequestration from defense, the Oklahoma Republican on Thursday blew the lid off billions that could be saved without actually undermining our troops.

Dr. Coburn labels the Pentagon the “Department of Everything” in his report outlining $67.9 billion in cuts over 10 years. It should guide lawmakers as they begin to consider how to deal with the first $109 billion in spending reductions due Jan. 2 under the terms of the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal. “We are making the point that, if you want to cut another $500 billion out of defense, you can get 15 percent just on things that have nothing to do with defense,” the senator told The Washington Times in an interview Friday. “It’s not hard to cut spending in Washington. It’s hard to get members to cut because they are clueless about the details of the spending and refuse to do the hard work of oversight.””

They’re all wrong.

While the items identified in that report by Sen. Coburn are indeed wasteful, their total annual scale is small – just $6.8 bn per year – meaning that they are a drop in the bucket. They’re not even close to being enough to pay even for one year of sequestration, let alone an entire decade. Coburn’s estimate that the defense budget can be cut by 15% simply by cutting waste, or that 15% of the sequester’s cuts can be paid for just by cutting waste, is false. By his own numbers, it’s only $6.8 bn per year. The sequester, if it kicks in, will make $60 bn cuts in the defense budget EVERY YEAR from FY2013 through FY2022.

There isn’t enough waste in the defense budget to cut the budget that deeply. Not even close.

To be clear: I’m not making excuses for wasteful spending. I’m just pointing out the fact that its scale is too small to pay for the cuts that the sequester would require, let alone to balance the federal budget.

In the federal budget, there is a lot of waste, but not even CLOSE to enough to balance the federal budget. It’s a drop in the bucket. “Cut wasteful spending” is the favorite excuse of those cowardly politicians who want to avoid the hard choices that Washington will have to make to balance the federal budget, especially on entitlements, tax reform, and domestic welfare programs, which now cost over $600 bn per year, more than defense.

In order to meet the First Tier pre-sequestration BCA requirement to cut $487 bn out of its budget over the next decade, the DOD had to make many tough choices, including:

  • Calling for significant reforms of the military’s healthcare and retirement programs, including TRICARE premium hikes;
  • Retiring 7 young, very capable cruisers (4 of which are based in the Pacific, including one based in Japan);
  • Retiring hundreds of aircraft, including dozens of F-16s, A-10s, C-130s, C-23s, C-27s, and C-5s (thus divesting itself of the entire C-23 and C-27 fleet);
  • Retiring Global Hawk Block 30 aircraft;
  • Withdrawing two Army brigades from Europe;
  • Cutting 16 ships out of the shipbuilding plan for the next 5 years;
  • Cut submarines and destroyers out of the shipbuilding plan;
  • Delay the SSBN replacement program;
  • Deny the Air Force a JSTARS replacement program;
  • Deny the Air Force a new air-to-air missile;
  • Lay off 80,000 troops.

Sequestration would require even deeper budgetary cuts, and thus, even tougher choices in much larger numbers, with much deeper force structure and programmatic cuts. In other words, it would be even more destructive. Eliminating “waste” would not even come close to paying for sequestration.

Moreover, the opponents of a strong defense conveniently omitted the parts of Coburn’s report that they don’t like and which don’t jibe with their agenda, such as this part of the report’s conclusions (with which I agree):

“Before being forced to cut active duty troops or delaying modernization of strategic ships and planes, Congress should first eliminate these types of programs, policies, and agencies within the Pentagon that duplicate the missions and initiatives of other government agencies.”

And in the introduction, Coburn rightly wrote that:

“These long overdue reforms could pay for a third of the cost of the planned fleet of new strategic bombers for the Air Force. It could, likewise, pay a third of the cost of the fleet of Ohio-class replacement nuclear submarines for the Navy. For the Army, $16 billion over ten  years could mean robust funding for modernization or purchase of new rifles, new ammunition, and new machine guns for infantry troops. Adopting these recommendations could also help DOD reduce the need for cuts to National Guard troops, aircraft modernization, and shipbuilding.”

The only thing he’s wrong about here is that adopting these reforms would pay for more than 100% – not merely a third – of the cost of the planned Next Generation Bombers which, with all R&D monies included, will cost only $550 mn per copy ($55 bn over the life of the program) to buy, assuming a planned order of 100 aircraft. Sen. Coburn’s proposals would save $6.79 bn per year, i.e. $68 bn per decade – $13 bn more than enough to pay for the Next Gen Bomber fleet.

So these savings would pay for the entire Next Gen Bomber fleet and still leave $1.3 bn per year unspent in taxpayers’ pockets, or could be devoted to shipbuilding or other defense priorities.

In the Defense Reform Proposals Package, I have called for the full implementation of these reforms.

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