The Pentagon, caught between a budget cap on defense spending and a long wish list of expensive weapons programs, will need to choose between what is nice to have and what is necessary and affordable for maintaining national security. There are many past examples of the Pentagon planning for a large number of weapons and then being forced to adjust its expectations and reduce its purchase of weapons systems due to rising costs and under-performance.
A more cost efficient and logical approach would be to implement detailed budgeting that estimates realistically the cost of weapons programs in advance and avoids wasting money when programs are forced to be cut back. This approach would spend taxpayer money more effectively and save billions in waste and sunken costs.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2016 request for the Department of Defense, which is $38 billion over the budget caps, has created quite a dispute between defense hawks, who want to fund the military budget at or above the President’s request, and budget hawks, who want to preserve the caps set in place by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. Neither group is likely to get exactly what it wants; a substantial agreement to lift the budget caps is unlikely, but some costs will be shifted into the caps-exempt war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to alleviate [read: ignore] pressure from the budget caps.
In a 12-10 vote, the Senate Budget Committee approved its defense budget resolution, marking to the $523 billion budget cap level for defense and an additional $96 billion in OCO. The House Budget Committee, after much debate between defense and budget hawks, has passed a similar resolution, marking defense to the caps and including an additional $94 in the war fund. But between a lack of offsetting plans for budgeting the increased spending and widespread concerns that further abusing the OCO fund is a slippery budgetary slope, Congress may have trouble passing the large cap-exempt increase.
Upon examination, the Pentagon will come to find that the requested quantities of some defense acquisition programs surpass the tactical needs or realistic expectations for their fulfillment. Historical examples of this realization are abundant. In the 1980’s, the Navy planned to build 29 Seawolf-class submarines, but only produced three in response to rising costs and changing threats.
Similarly, the Navy planned to build 32 Zumwalt-class destroyers, but purchased only three vessels at a total program cost of around $4 billion per ship.
Even the Ohio-class submarine program experienced reductions; of the 21 originally planned submarines, 18 subs were produced and 14 are currently operating to carry out its nuclear mission.
In recent news, the oft-troubled Littoral Combat Ship program has been cut back. In 2014, Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reduced the Littoral Combat Ship’s purchase plans from 55 to 32 ships in response to inadequate capabilities and rising costs.
The modification of acquisition plans is not exclusive to the Navy. Both the Air Forces’ B-2 long range nuclear bomber and F-22 Raptor were procured at fractions of their original deployment levels. Of the 132 B-2 bombers planned for by the Air Force, only 21 aircraft were purchased.
The F-22 Raptor, originally intended as a 750-plane fleet, was whittled down to 187 operational aircraft. Even the Air Forces’ nuclear Peacekeeper MX missile was cut by 75% from 200 to 50 deployed missiles.[table “2” not found /]
More to Come:
Defense and budget experts agree that more acquisition reductions are in our future. With $38 billion between the budget caps and the President’s requested defense budget, something has to give.
Frank Kendall, the Undersecretary of Acquisitions, technology and logistics at the Pentagon, echoed a similar concern that all of the Pentagon’s plans may not be affordable. During a recent hearing conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, Kendall said, “we’re going to start having a problem finding ways to afford these systems,” in reference to the Pentagon’s plan to concurrently modernize the nuclear submarines, nuclear bombers and nuclear missiles. Kendall’s testimony for the hearing also mentioned the “difficult budget choices entering the 2020s” in funding the Navy’s shipbuilding programs simultaneously with the Navy and Air Forces’ nuclear weapons modernization programs.
In all likelihood, tough budgetary choices are on the horizon.
It is in our national interest to maintain a well-trained, highly-capable military. But purchasing excess quantities of weapons systems is counterproductive to national security and the interests of the American people. There are always tradeoffs, and in this case, it’s billions of taxpayer dollars that could be spent on other priorities that would make our nation safer and stronger.
There is an established precedent for the Pentagon to evaluate and adjust its acquisition plans for major weapons systems, and in all likelihood, we will see it happen again.