Where is Pentagon Spending Headed?

Weekly WastebasketWhere is Pentagon Spending Headed?Recent statements don’t point to major cuts.

Pentagon spending is much on the minds of people who think about the budget, worry about skyrocketing deficits, and remain concerned the United States faces significant global adversaries. President Trump often states he has turned around what he considers a decline in Pentagon spending. But has he? Let’s look back at historic numbers.

Looking at DoD toplines for each year since Fiscal Year 2001 (the last year prior to the terrorist attacks and beginning of two major wars) the highwater mark was in FY2010 with a total of $691 billion combining base budget and Overseas Contingency Operations funding.  This was the first budget that was entirely a product of the Obama Administration – the FY09 budget request having been based on a budget written in the final year of the George W. Bush administration. To compare, the Trump Administration FY21 request is for $705.4 billion. Obviously, in static dollars $705.4 billion is greater than $691 billion. However, adjusted for inflation, the number for this year would be $830.6 billion to have the same buying power as the Obama budget for FY10.

We’re not advocating for Pentagon spending to be north of $800 billion…far from it! But we do think everyone should have all the facts before saying the Trump Administration has “rebuilt” the Pentagon.

We also look askance at Trump Administration protestations that defense spending is sacrosanct while, at the same time, raiding Pentagon coffers to build barriers on the southern border. This is a clear violation of the Congress’ Article I responsibilities granted by the Constitution. The U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled against the president on this point and we hope that’s the beginning of the end for these illegal budgetary maneuvers.

Meanwhile, the latest from the Secretary of Defense, Battle Force 2045, is a shipbuilding plan that will likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Where will that money come from in the next 25 years? Supposedly the Department of the Navy has found savings that will supply funds, “in the coming years for the building of new ships.” In addition, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says he will “harvest” more money for the shipbuilding effort from Pentagon-wide reforms. No dollar figures were provided in the additional rollout of this plan to raise shipbuilding to 13 percent of the Department of the Navy topline. But when we first wrote about this, we did the math and showed that calculus would require that 46 percent of all procurement funding across the Department of the Navy would have to be devoted to shipbuilding.

That’s a lot of cash. So much money, in fact, that we believe Battle Force 2045 will remain unfunded or chronically underfunded because it’s unaffordable in today’s climate with deficits passing $3 trillion.

Now consider the work of the House Armed Services Committee in its “Future of Defense Task Force.” Striking to us at Taxpayers for Common Sense is this finding, early in the report: “To remain competitive, the United States must prioritize the development of emerging technologies over fielding and maintaining legacy systems. This will require significant changes to the Pentagon’s force structure, posture, operational plans, and acquisition system and must be complemented by a tough and fulsome review of legacy systems, platforms, and missions.” (Emphasis added)

Color us skeptical that the rest of Congress, heck, even the rest of the House Armed Services Committee, will go along with retiring legacy systems that are built, maintained, and stationed in somebody’s Congressional district. Exhibit A to this point, the A-10 aircraft that the Air Force has been running away from for years.

Finally, the recent words of the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith (D-WA): “The approach we would like to take is a center-left, pragmatic approach that recognizes, yes, we absolutely have threats. Part of beating those threats is having a strong military to deter our adversaries.”

Chairman Smith goes on to say, “I voted against the 10 percent cut when it was on the floor. I’d be surprised if I could support a 10 percent cut, but I’m not going to prejudge until I’m sure what 10 percent you’re cutting. The details matter ― what are we paying for, what’s the strategy to support it ― and some [lawmakers] have really stepped up their understanding: what should be cut and why.”

To our minds, all of this adds up to confusion. The current Secretary of Defense is laying the groundwork for huge increases in shipbuilding. That plan is now out there and, no matter what the results of the election, Congressional boosters of shipbuilding will want to execute that plan.

And Chairman Smith points to the results of the committee review that says the development of emerging technologies must be prioritized. (Cha-ching!) Supposedly, some of those costs will be offset by retiring legacy systems. (Spoiler alert: Never. Gonna. Happen.) And the chairman recently voted against a 10 percent cut to the Pentagon topline and would be “surprised” if he could support it in the future.

So that’s the most senior civilian at the Pentagon calling for big increases. Shortly thereafter, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is, let’s call it … agnostic … on the topic of significant cuts.

We’ll know in the next few weeks if political power in Washington shifts or remains roughly the same. We believe there’s plenty of room for belt-tightening in a Pentagon topline of more than $700 billion. But, will Pentagon spending come down in the next four years? It sure doesn’t sound like it.

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