The Audit the Pentagon bill introduced last week by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., described in last Thursday's Examiner editorial, is rightly aimed at reforming Pentagon budget processes so that the Defense Department can be held to the standards of fiscal accountability that are required of all other executive branch agencies.
The editorial quoted Manchin as saying, "We need to make sure that we're using our limited resources in the best way possible to support the men and women in uniform." The bill should be passed, but even if it is it will fix only half of the problem with Pentagon budgeting.
The other half of the problem is that, under every president since Reagan, the Pentagon's budget process has been separated from its analysis of what threats our armed services are tasked to defeat or deter and a strategy crafted to ensure that they can perform their missions.
During the Reagan era, the Pentagon budget was created in a process that first analyzed the threat matrix on the basis of the best available intelligence and an assessment of the intentions and capabilities of our adversaries. The result was then compared to the assets the Pentagon had -- weapon systems, personnel, bases and such -- to determine the difference between what we had and what we needed. That, in turn, was used to create a budget that resulted in the retirement of unneeded or obsolete assets and the investment in the assets that were needed for the next five or 10 years.
It was called "Defense Guidance." When Congress took hold of it, it became the politicized and awkward "quadrennial defense review." Since President Obama took office, his administration has made major cuts in weapon system acquisition and development even before the "QDR" was done. Those cuts already amount to almost $500 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years. But we don't know -- and the Pentagon doesn't know -- whether we're cutting fat or muscle.
In January, sequestration imposed by last year's Budget Control Act could add another $600 billion to Obama's cuts in the Pentagon's spending authority over the next decade. The total may be over $1 trillion. Sequestration requires an across-the-board cut in every element of the Pentagon budget, regardless of what we need and what we don't.
No one can seriously doubt that the Pentagon budget contains some waste, and that the way it spends money can be improved. But this isn't just a matter of how much the Pentagon spends. It's the principal issue of how the Pentagon budgets to defend our nation.
We have spent more than a decade and probably a trillion dollars fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, wearing out conventional weapons and restructuring our forces for that kind of a fight. But the emerging threats such as cyberwar and the proliferation of missile threats pose another burden for the Pentagon. Many of those threats -- cyberwar and ballistic missiles chief among them -- are relatively cheap for adversaries to mount and enormously expensive for us to defend against.
Congress should insist on a re-examination of the Pentagon budget before sequestration can take effect. We need to determine, by the same kind of process as the Reagan administration used, what the Pentagon budget should be, based on an examination of the threats, the assets we have, and the assets we will need in the next decade. If we don't have a threat and strategy-based Pentagon budget, we can't expect our armed forces to defend us, no matter how large or small their budget may be.
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