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The Challenge of Making Commonsense Cuts to the Pentagon

Those of us who are opposed to major cuts in the defense budget–which, on the current trajectory, will amount to a trillion dollars over the next decade–often hear this objection: But isn’t there a lot of waste in the massive Pentagon budget? Surely it’s possible to eliminate needless spending while preserving essential weapons and capabilities. Possible, yes, but not likely. Because cutting the Pentagon budget is not an arid academic exercise. It is an intensely political process where fat often gets shielded while muscle gets cut.

To see what I mean, read this fascinating Washington Post article which details how a Pentagon consultant identified $1 billion in unnecessary spending: That’s the amount the Pentagon spends to run giant commissaries on domestic military bases that replicate the functions of nearby supermarkets while underselling them by roughly 30 percent. (You could achieve even greater cuts by closing unnecessary commissaries in advanced countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Germany where there is no shortage of supermarkets.)

This consultant talked to Wal-Mart and the giant retailer agreed to give military families, both active duty and retirees, the same discount at their stores as they currently receive at the commissaries. Since Wal-Mart has stores within 10 miles of most military bases (and since other retailers would no doubt emulate its example), this would seem like a no-brainer: the government would save $1 billion and military families would still have access to low-cost groceries.

But as soon as news of the proposed plan leaked out, veterans’ organizations and the commissary organization got busy lobbying against it. Members of Congress intervened to protect the commissaries. Then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates decided to shelve the plan for fear of losing a bruising battle.

That’s what happens to well-intentioned plans to cut unnecessary spending in the real world of Washington. Meanwhile, military end-strength and training–which apparently doesn’t have as much of a constituency–is being cut, thereby jeopardizing the military’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Faced with this unpalatable reality, we are faced with essentially two choices: either keeping the military budget as is and accepting some needless spending or cutting the military budget and getting rid of vital capabilities while preserving a lot of needless spending. I would opt for the former option, especially since military spending today, at less than 4 percent of GDP, is hardly unsustainable. But Washington, in its wisdom, is opting by default for the latter option.


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