It's Time for America to Get Defense Spending Right

POCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - March 15: A litter team of South Korean Army rushes to a triage station carrying 'wounded' soldier fro
POCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - March 15: A litter team of South Korean Army rushes to a triage station carrying 'wounded' soldier from a Black Hawk during the wounded soldiers evacuation training on Mar. 15, 2016 in The Armed Forces Ildong Hospital, Pocheon, South Korea. (Photo by Shin Woong-jae/For the Washington Post)

For basketball fanatics around the nation, it's March madness time. Meanwhile in Congress, there's a different type of madness ensuing.

It's federal budget season.

Earlier this week, House Republicans unveiled their budget proposal for 2017, calling for $3.9 trillion in spending in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Their proposal arrived in Congress a little less than a month after President Obama submitted his final annual budget, which topped the $4 trillion mark.

Recent history suggests that the final budget battle between the president and a hostile Republican-led Congress won't be a slam-dunk victory for either side and could likely come down to the final seconds. And once again, one of the biggest points of contention in the debate will be how much we spend on our nation's defenses.

The overall defense budget for the current fiscal year is $580.3 billion. That figure does not include tens of billions of dollars for our nuclear energy arsenal, which comes out of the Department of Energy budget. For those keeping score at home, what we allocate to defense represents more than half of the so-called discretionary spending for domestic and military programs that the president and Congress fight about each year. It's also far more than other major countries around the world, including China, spend on their defenses.

As the competition stands now, the president and the Congress are at odds over the appropriate amount of defense spending, with the Obama budget anywhere between $10 billion and $15 billion short of what the Congress believes should be the minimum level of funding for our military, setting the country up for a potentially lengthy budget showdown.

Defense spending is one area of budgeting where our nation should not give into political gamesmanship but seriously tackle the important issues that lie at the center of the debate. Indeed, we must get our defense spending right -- both for our country's safety and security and also for our fiscal well-being.

To get it right, we need to be constantly reviewing and assessing our defense needs as they pertain to the security threats we face, the daunting demands of U.S. leadership around the world and where we can potentially achieve greater efficiencies without sacrificing our military's effectiveness.

Right now we have a contingent of politicians, policymakers and lobbyists who support all increases for defense spending and rarely, if ever, encounter a proposal for greater spending that they won't forcefully get behind in the name of restoring American strength and preparing the U.S. for potential attacks. On the other hand, we have a group of people who almost always advocate for cuts in defense spending. Generally speaking, they believe the budget is too high and fails to account for other important priorities, usually of the domestic variety. They view a substantial amount of "waste" in the appropriations typically committed to the Department of Defense, which they feel has been an ineffective and irresponsible steward of government resources.

My approach to defense spending is different. I reject the automatic response of these two groups. I believe we need a strong, well-funded, technologically superior military. I recognize that we have -- and should have -- the most powerful military in the world. Furthermore, having met many military personnel over a period of decades, I applaud the honor, dedication, intelligence and patriotism of those who put their lives on the line to defend our country every day.

The question for me isn't whether we have the world's most powerful military. The answer to that is a definitive yes. The real questions are: Do we have the most relevant military at the points of necessity? More specifically, are our forces sufficiently nimble, highly trained, fast, flexible and properly prepared to manage and establish effective solutions to an ever-growing list of threats and difficulties across the world? Are there trends in defense spending for personnel, overhead and procurement that are squeezing out modernization?

We need a less ideological, more serious assessment of the specifics of defense spending. We should not view the Department of Defense budget as sacrosanct. There are many areas where cuts should be seriously considered.

For one, our military currently has a multiplicity of headquarters, and excessive duplication: Is it necessary for all four branches have their own air forces? Eliminating some of the duplication in our defense arrangements will likely result in greater efficiencies in this new era of national security spending, one marked by the research and development of new and advanced weapons systems, such as artificial intelligence, electronic warfare, robots, drones, and super soldiers.

This new era is already requiring us to make careful judgments as to what systems will be the most effective in engaging the threats we currently face, including those presented by China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and ISIS, as well as those we may encounter 15-20 years from now. We have to get much better at attracting the talent we need in our existing forces to carry out current and future missions.

We should pay for the wars we fight and not hand down massive deficits to future generations. America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost us trillions of dollars, and we fought them for many years without raising taxes or making compensatory funding cuts.

Our security depends not just on allotting more money for defense, but on spending that money smartly. I'm disappointed in the performance of Congress on defense spending. Our lawmakers' tough talk typically just leads to them increasing what the president requests and failing to give the budget strong oversight. As a result, personnel entitlements have risen dramatically, overwhelming the budget and threatening our military's core mission. They need to be examined with great care. Likewise, our weapons systems should not be seen as sacrosanct. Can we get along with fewer than our current stockpile of 450 anti-ballistic missiles? Can the world's largest underwater force reduce a few of its 50 nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarines?

And then there's the issue of defense contracting, which requires robust oversight at all times but does not get it. As someone who's skeptical of monopolies, I believe that continuous competition for weapons development contracts, over time, can lower costs, yield technological advancement and also boost our overall military performance.

So the billions of dollars we spend annually on defense need sustained, rigorous scrutiny. Fortunately, there are many good, intelligent people in the executive and legislative branches of our government and in the military who are keenly aware of the daunting challenges in military spending. They also recognize that American leadership in the world will continue to demand a strong U.S. military posture.

Nevertheless, the time has come to engage in serious and sensible discussions about our defense budget, reject automatic approval of either spending cuts or increases, and carefully manage our resources in a way that preserves and improves the strength of U.S. forces in a constrained fiscal environment.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.