Open Letter to the Super Committee

Over the next two months, the bipartisan "super committee" set up under the debt ceiling deal will work to find $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade. Given the long-term threat that the federal deficit poses to American security, power, and interests, it is imperative that the committee make real progress toward getting our nation's fiscal house in order.

Sensible reductions in the defense budget must be part of the solution. In the decade since 9/11, defense spending has grown by a staggering 56 percent, reaching levels not seen since the end of World War II. Last year, we spent $250 billion more in real terms than what we spent on average during the Cold War.

This level of spending is dramatically out of proportion with the threats. Wasteful defense spending does not make our nation safer. It diverts resources away from other key investments in the American economy, the real foundation of U.S. power.

Here are ten recommendations for the super committee on how they can responsibly reduce projected levels of defense spending by $677 billion over the next ten years without undermining our national security.

1. Reduce active-duty troops in Europe and Asia by one-third ($80 billion through 2020)

At a time when many of our allies are cutting their defense budgets to address their own deficit woes, the United States still maintains about 150,000 active-duty personnel in Europe and Asia. Given improved capabilities for troop transport and long-range strikes, the U.S. could reduce this overseas presence by one-third without impacting U.S. security or interests.

2. Reform military health care ($150 billion over the next decade)

Last year, the Pentagon spent more than $50 billion on its Tricare military health care system, more than double what it spent a decade ago and about as much as it spent on the war in Iraq.
The vast majority of the cost growth stems not from active-duty service members but from military retirees, who pay just $520 per year for health coverage for a family and nothing at all after they turn 65. While our retired service members deserve access to affordable, top quality health care for life, the current system is not sustainable. The Pentagon can save $15 billion per year by reinstituting a fairer cost-sharing balance between military retirees and taxpayers, and reducing overutilization and double-coverage.

3. Return the ground forces to pre-9/11 levels ($147 billion through 2020)

To wage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon increased the size of the Army and Marines by about 100,000. As the U.S. is highly unlikely to wage large ground wars in the foreseeable future, we should return the ground forces to pre-9/11 levels as we wind down our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

4. Redirect DoD's planned efficiency savings to reduce the baseline defense budget ($100 billion through 2016)

The defense department's efficiencies initiative has identified $178 billion in savings through 2016. The Pentagon plans to use $78 billion to reduce its budget and reinvest the remaining $100 billion into other programs. No other department could admit they've been wasting $178 billion every five years and then get to keep some of it. All of DoD's efficiency savings should go toward reducing its budget.

5. Cancel the V-22 Osprey program ($11 billion through 2016)

Long hampered by cost overruns and technical problems, the V-22 has been on the chopping block for decades. Then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney tried to cancel it in the '90s; President Obama's deficit commission recommended ending the program last year. Ending procurement of the V-22, which costs five times as much as other helicopters, would save at least $11 billion through 2016.

6. Limit the procurement of the DDG-51 destroyer to one per year and the littoral combat ship to two per year ($9 billion through 2016)

In terms of firepower, the U.S. Navy overmatches the next twenty largest navies combined, many of which are U.S. allies. The Pentagon can afford to slow the procurement of the DDG-51 destroyer and littoral combat ship, keeping these production lines open but saving $9 billion through 2016.

7. Retire two existing carrier battle groups and associated air wings ($50 billion through 2020)

While the United States maintains 11 aircraft carriers, no other nation has even one of comparable size and power. The U.S. can maintain its overwhelming air and naval superiority even while shrinking its carrier fleet slightly.

8. Cut the procurement of the Navy and Marine Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter variants ($20 billion through 2016)

The F-35 program continues to suffer extreme cost overruns, with lifetime cost estimates for the fleet recently reaching $1 trillion. Alternative fighter jets like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet continue to be effective, so cutting the F-35's Navy and Marine variants--while allowing the Air Force to keep its entire buy--would help control spiraling costs in the program without compromising American air superiority.

9. Cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 311 operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons ($110 billion)

Our massive nuclear stockpile is a relic of the Cold War, expensive to maintain, and largely useless in combating the threats facing the nation today. According to strategists at the Air War College and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, the United States requires only 311 nuclear weapons to maintain a credible deterrent. Such a reduction would save at least $11 billion a year.

10. War (OCO) funding ($0 over the next decade)

To regain control of the defense budget, it is absolutely imperative that the U.S. end its involvement in Iraq by 2012 and Afghanistan by 2014 as planned. However, the super committee should not count reduced war spending as savings in its deficit reduction proposal.

The wars have been funded by supplementals, not through DoD's base budget. Therefore, savings from war funding do nothing to address the long-term, institutional problems facing the Department of Defense: mismanagement and waste.

In the coming decade, the Department of Defense, which now receives 20 percent of the federal budget, will need to relearn how to live without unlimited funding, something it had done prior to 9/11. In these times of fiscal austerity, we can no longer afford to sink taxpayer dollars into unnecessary or ineffective weapons systems.

To address the most pressing threats to our security--the national debt and our faltering economy--the super committee must take the opportunity to reduce defense spending to more responsible levels.

Lawrence J. Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Alexander Rothman is a special assistant at the Center.