The latest Washington parlor game involves questions about an opaque process currently underway in the Pentagon. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Hicks, has asked the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to conduct a review of legacy weapon systems including:
- the current (i.e. Trump Administration) shipbuilding plan,
- legacy aircraft and ships, and
- the nuclear enterprise.
The timing of this review will inform the Biden Administration’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget request. And we believe it should inform them that there is plenty to cut and save at the Pentagon.
While the shipbuilding plan and the nuclear enterprise are both ideas you can wrap your mind around what, exactly, is a “legacy program?” Since the memorandum kicking off this review hasn’t been made public, we can only take a stab at what the term means from a common sense perspective. (See what we did there? Taxpayers for Common Sense always takes a common sense approach.) We’ll go with defining a legacy program as one that is currently in production. If a program is still in the research and development phase, it probably doesn’t qualify for this review.
Using that definition, we pulled together a potential cut list of programs. Some of them have a considerably longer legacy than others. Cough – B-1, F-22, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles – cough.
But given the unprecedented costs of the program we have also included the F-35 program on our list of potential cuts. Three different variants are being procured, one for each of the services that flies tactical aircraft. Well, except the Marine Corps. As always, the Marines are special and will buy both the vertical takeoff version as well as some of the carrier-based variant of the F-35. Three different variants adds exponentially to the logistical “tail” behind these aircraft, which is a big part of why sustaining this system in the inventory for 30 or more years will be a huge drag on Pentagon budgets for decades. For that reason, if no other, a review of the missions and requirements for the F-35 is paramount in the early days of the administration.
Some of the programs on the TCS cut list are there because the military services have been trying to divest themselves of the platform for years. It goes against the grain of any military service to voluntarily give up force structure. We firmly believe when a service says it needs fewer of anything, the Congress should thoughtfully consider that request. Instead, a knee-jerk negative reaction often follows because of either where the program is produced or where it is stationed. We have for several years pointed out “general provisions” of the annual Pentagon spending bill or bill language in the Defense authorization bill is used to prohibit the divesting or reduction in inventory of several aircraft programs: the E-8 JSTARS, the RC-125 and the EQ-4.
Are these the only items we believe should be cut in the Pentagon? Of course not. But some of the biggest budget busters we believe warrant a beady eye don’t fit under the heading of legacy programs. For instance, the biggest boondoggle of Pentagon spending, the Overseas Contingency Operations account. For years – no really, years – we’ve been at the forefront of those pointing out the irony of the department with the highest level of discretionary spending also having a special, secret sauce, off-budget-but-it-still-balloons-the-deficit account. We’re hopeful the first Biden Administration budget will leave this slush fund in the dust.
Another area ripe for budget reconsideration (not to be mixed up with reconciliation) is the burgeoning Space Force. Purely a vanity project for President Trump, now is the time for the Biden Administration to decide whether we need another military service and all the tens of billions of new spending required to get it up and running. We think not.
We applaud the new administration for undertaking this review. The first budget of any president is an aspirational document, setting the tone for his or her priorities. We’ll be watching for intelligent, informed, deficit-minded decision making at the Pentagon, the same as every other federal department. Your tax dollars should never be spent on systems that don’t work or have outlived their missions. And we’ll be writing about the results when we have them.