Shooting the Pentagon in the foot

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Article Highlights

  • Congress has been quick to approve proposed cuts to the military’s topline

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  • Rejecting "hard choices" does not mean that military cuts will go away

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  • Congress must first look in the mirror and admit it has a problem

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While President Obama is not expected to devote much time to the challenges facing America’s military during his annual State of the Union address, Congress might want to take stock of today’s defense realities.

Since the defense budget peaked in 2010, Congress has been quick to approve proposed cuts to the military’s topline. But Congress has been just as swift to oppose specific proposals made once those vague budget cuts trickle down to become real-world, tangible consequences.

Politicians are ignoring the reality that rejecting the “hard choices” required as a result of their budgetary decisions (e.g., sequestration) does not mean cuts will go away. It just means they will have to come from somewhere else within the defense budget.

Every rejection of a base closure round, of smaller increases in military pay, or of equipment retirement, means that the military has to take the money from other priorities.

Examples abound. Congress has chosen repeatedly to override proposals to slow the rate of growth in military health care costs, and has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to initiate another base closure round. Yet it still questions why the Defense Department cannot grow the Navy faster or minimalize cuts to the National Guard or curtail civilian furlough days.

A sample of Pentagon initiatives blocked or overridden by Congress in recent years includes:

  • Rejecting the proposal to institute TriCare Standard / Extra enrollment fees for working-age military retirees;
  • Scrapping the proposal to increase TriCare Prime non-mental health office visit co-payments for retirees and their families;
  • Overruling a proposal to increase co-payments for pharmaceuticals in 2014 (excluding active duty personnel);
  • Reversing the plan to stop tuition assistance after sequestration took effect in 2013;
  • Vetoing any base closure round (BRAC) for the past two years;
  • Stopping the planned six percent reduction in the DoD civilian workforce which would have taken place with the approval of a BRAC round; and,
  • Approving military pay raises above the employment cost in six of the last eleven years.

The cost of not approving these needed reforms has been an increasingly dangerous sacrifice of combat power:

  • The Army’s Future Combat Systems;
  • The VH-71 Presidential helicopter;
  • The Air Force’s Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter program;
  • Missile defense programs, such as the Airborne Laser and Multiple Kill Vehicle;
  • The C-17 airlifter;
  • The F-22 fifth-generation fighter;
  • The F136 Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine;
  • The CG(X) next-generation cruiser;
  • The Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle;
  • The EP-X next-generation reconnaissance aircraft;
  • Eight Army Brigade Combat Teams; and
  • Five Marine infantry battalions.

It is time for members of Congress to address the growing imbalances within the defense budget which are having a direct and harmful impact on America’s defenses.

While no one party shares all the culpability for this paralysis, all policymakers have a mutual responsibility to fix the growing crisis and become effective advocates for America’s men and women in uniform. Providing world-class pay and benefits to service members is an important part of the equation. But an equally important, yet often ignored, imperative is to maintain an unmatched fighting force to keep warfighters coming home after prevailing in conflict.

Congress must first look in the mirror and admit it has a problem. Only then may Congress even begin to reverse the decline in American hard power capabilities. By giving the Pentagon leeway to pursue necessary reform, Congress will help preserve both a professional force and military muscle. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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