WASHINGTON – Lawmakers and defense experts proposed on Wednesday a slew of reforms to military spending, hoping to find a balance between military preparedness and efficiency.
While it is important for the U.S. military to be prepared for any unforeseen conflicts that may arise, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), speaking at an event co-hosted by Concerned Veterans for America and the Weekly Standard, said there are many opportunities for the Defense Department to operate more efficiently.
As examples, Coburn noted the consolidation of the Air Force’s operations at its three strategic depots over the past 18 months, which he said would save $1.6 billion, and Army requests for $2.5 billion for equipment needs that can be met for $100 million.
“The problem is culture and the problem is leadership,” Coburn said in regards to inefficiency in military spending.
He said the top generals running the Air Force depots changed the culture of the organization by changing how they run the depots, which resulted in over a billion dollars in savings outside of the requirements under sequestration.
Coburn said these generals bought into an idea that culture has to be centered on “what is the goal and how to get it done efficiently and effectively and below budget.”
“If you look what is in front of us in terms of our finances and debt, it’s gonna be even more important that we get value for everything we do,” Coburn said. “We need to have the strongest, best, most flexible, and most efficient military in the world to be able to carry out a cogent foreign policy. We also need to be able to afford it.”
Coburn and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W-Va.) introduced a bill Tuesday aimed to push the Pentagon toward being ready for a full financial audit by restricting spending on major weapons programs if the Defense Department fails to get its books in order.
“We know that about $20 billion a year, the military doesn’t have any idea where they spend it,” Coburn said. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s impossible.”
Under the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2013, if the Defense Department fails to obtain a clean audit opinion by 2018, the military services would be barred from spending money to fund new major acquisition programs beyond what is knows as “Milestone B.” This means the services would not be able to implement the production and deployment phase of a particular defense system.
In 2009, Congress mandated the Defense Department pass a financial audit by the end of fiscal year 2017. The Pentagon has vowed to become “audit-ready” before the deadline.
The Pentagon, which is responsible for more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending, has never achieved a full financial audit. The Pentagon’s financial management has landed on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk List every year since the mid-1990s. GAO has classified the Defense Department’s financial management as having a “high risk, of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.”
“The idea under the Constitution was that Congress is to appropriate money and the agencies are to give an account,” Coburn said. “The Pentagon can’t give an account on where it spends its money.”
“There are 7,087 auditors at the Pentagon right now, 10,846 accountants, 15,285 financial administrators, 2,624 payroll officials. That would seem to be enough staff to audit the Pentagon,” he added.
The Pentagon is facing $50 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts, known as the sequester, annually over the next decade.
The senator said he opposed the sequester, calling it the “dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” He said the president could have given government agencies flexibility through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to choose how to execute the budget cuts but instead made it “painful” for them.
“My hope is that, as the sequester continues, the president will grant flexibility through the OMB to give much greater latitude to the great people who work in this government to make common-sense decisions,” he said.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said House Republicans are not sure whether they will go for either a long-term or short-term continuing resolution to fund the government before the current one expires on Sept. 30. He said a short-term continuing resolution would enable Congress to lessen the impact of sequestration on the Defense Department, rather than extend it for one year.
Although Hunter, who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, said he supports a strong Navy that can project American strength and promote international trade, he called the Obama administration’s decision to pivot toward the Asia Pacific region “an absolute joke.”
“You don’t fight wars where you want to fight wars, you fight wars where you have to,” Hunter said.
He said the Asia-Pacific shift has put the Defense Department under more strain because the Navy will have to maintain that posture in the Pacific while at the same time gearing up for a war in the Middle East.
Thomas Donnelly, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said many of the past and present reforms proposed for the Pentagon are “militarily nonsensical,” such as the suggestion by Coburn and others that the military should give up F-35 fighter jets in exchange for cheaper F-18s. F-18s cannot take off from amphibious ships but only from the larger aircraft carriers, meaning they would actually cost more to operate than F-35s, he said.
He added that Americans get “an incredibly large return” from military expenditures compared to spending from other government agencies. He said the real problems are reduced training for troops due to budget cuts and other mandatory spending that Congress has failed to address.
“If our government has fiscal problems, is not because of the military,” Donnelly said. “We’re faced with entitlement overstretch, not military overstretch.”
Mandatory spending, including interest payments, will be $2.3 trillion in 2014, or about 67 percent of the president’s 2014 budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, would take more than half of that spending.