Fiscal Cliff 2013: 5 Ways to Cut Military Spending

President Obama and Congress are in the midst of a great debate over the future of government spending, both in terms of size and priorities. Under threat by a “fiscal cliff” that threatens the viability of the economic recovery underway, now is an excellent time for lawmakers to work together and reduce wasteful spending that does not invest in further economic growth, particularly regarding the military.  Considering how one of the aims of the new 2012 strategic guidance report issued by the Defense Department is to “…develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives…” there are at least five cuts we can make to reorient our nation’s military to sustainably protect our nation’s interests.    

1. Eliminate the use of private-sector contractors and reduce bloat in the defense and intelligence community

One of the greatest benefits wrought by the Iraq war, if any might come from that travesty, is that it pulled back the veil over the corrupt defense contracting system. While past wars repeatedly demonstrated that suppliers were all too happy to rip off the federal government while providing slipshod goods in return, the Iraq war demonstrated how this pattern extended into service provision. Time and again the Department of Defense or State would hire private contractors to provide security or other services rather than rely on their own personnel to carry out their mission. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting found, at one point the U.S. had 260,000 contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq — more than the total number of military personnel in both countries — wasting between $31 to $60 billion (a conservative estimate). Besides costing money, poor oversight by government agencies let contractors has cost lives as private firms subcontracted out to local warlords to provide security or tolerated their guards’ brutal behavior towards civilians. More recently, a cell phone video released last month depicted contractors in a Kabul military operations center staggering about drunk and high on narcotics while on duty.

To make matters worse, this trend is repeated domestically in the defense and intelligence communities, where many people join the federal government with the intention of obtaining the security clearances and skills needed to jump over to the private sector. Contracting out to their former employers, these workers much more than they do in public service and harm the moral of honest civil servants who encounter this phenomenon every day. Combined with the compartmentalization of top secret information that causes excessive redundancy in the DOD and intelligence community and you have costs escalating out of control

The U.S. needs to stop this practice in the future, both to save money and lives. Fortunately, the military is already moving in this direction, but it (and Congress) could use a good push.

2. Reduce the number of strategic bombers

Probably the easiest part of the defense budget to cut is the number of strategic bombers that the Air Force owns. In an era of ICBMS and drones that can be equipped with various kinds of ordinance suited to different missions and remotely guided to their targets with the help of satellite technology, there is no need to spend billions on manned aircraft. Bombers like the B-2 are extremely expensive to manufacture and operate and the maintenance alone on some these vehicles is far beyond their worth, especially older ones like the B-52 that have been in service since the 1950’s and are scheduled to be used for another 30 years.

Of course, a counterargument to this is that somehow another nation may hijack our drones and missile fleets through cyberwarfare, but the threat of cyber attacks is greatly exaggerated and modern strategic bombers are no less guided by computers connected to global networks than anything else. 

3. Reduce the size of the army

While focusing so heavily on one branch of the military over the others when determining budgets is frowned upon in the defense community, the reality remains that there is reason to maintain the army at its current size. After the disasters that were Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public has no appetite for sustained deployments abroad and past strategic decisions to structure the military around fighting and winning several wars simultaneously has also been proven hollow by our recent failures to prosecute even one successfully. That is why the new defense guidance aims to fight only one war to win — preferably with fewer troops on a short time frame — and have enough power left over to deny another enemy the ability to achieve their objectives.

Moreover, the greatest threat to our national security at this point besides terrorists is China. One of these threats comes from small organizations that typically avoid fighting us in the open and the other has an army twice the size of ours, larger than ours will ever be without the reinstitution of the draft. A ground engagement with nuclear-armed China would be profoundly foolish, if not suicidal.    

As a result, we not only cannot support or effectively utilize a large army at this point, but the threats we face also cannot be solved with ground power. The U.S. army should consequently reduce its force size and undertake a role similar to the British Expeditionary Force before WWI, while preserving its combat experience and expertise as much as possible to educate future leaders.

4. Close down bases in Europe and consolidate bases elsewhere

While there exists good reasons for keeping military bases open for strategic and diplomatic reasons — our military presence in South Korea exists specifically to deter North Korean aggression — no justification exists in the case of Europe. We established a large military presence there to counter a possible invasion by the Soviet Union, but such a threat no longer exists. Its successor state, Russia, has further weakened in recent years and the military itself was dealt a blow with the recent firing of reformist Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who just so happened to threaten the stranglehold the decrepit defense industry had on the military’s equipment.  

Given the high costs of living in Europe, much less operating a base there, whatever logistical or medical services our European bases provide ought to be shifted to our fleets in the Mediterranean or bases elsewhere that are cheaper to operate.

5. Reduce the number of ships in the navy and consolidate fleets

The Navy currently maintains 11 carrier fleets, equal to the number all other states put together and equipped with better vessels and crews on top of that. Even better, most of those ships belong to our allies. While it cannot be understated that carriers are crucial to our nation’s ability to project power overseas, we can demobilize several of the older ones and consolidate the rest in the three trouble areas that will likely impact our national security — the Indian Ocea, the South China Sea, and the Mediterranean. This would cover the entire Middle East as well as large parts of Asia and Africa and enable us to respond to any conflict (or natural disaster) that arises. As it stands, China is the only other country with serious plans to expand their fleets and compete with the U.S. and they are far away from that point, having landed their first jet on a carrier last Tuesday. Now would be an excellent time to mothball older ships, design better vessels, and prepare to construct those after the economy has recovered.

These recommendations are controversial in many quarters where any reduction in the size of the military poses an existential threat to the nation, but they are needed to both tackle waste, eliminate outmoded weapon systems, and bring our military in line with the strategy set out by our nation's leaders. For the last few decades our country has skimped on investing in domestic assets and needs for military strength and botched excursions abroad. It's time that we put the people first and make the military tighten its belt while the rest of the nation recovers and grows.