The Next President Could Cut $1 Trillion in Pentagon Spending

As we head into the home stretch of the presidential campaign, one issue has yet to be adequately debated -- how much to spend on the Pentagon, the largest, and arguably most important, agency in the federal government.

One initiative that should command universal agreement is the need to eliminate the billions in waste, fraud and abuse that are present in the Pentagon's current budget. In February of this year I published a report that documented $33 billion in waste generated by 27 programs over the past few years. And that's just a sampling that underscores the scale of the problem.

Perhaps the most effective tool for reducing waste in Pentagon spending would be to force the department to finally get its books in order so it can pass an audit. If it can't track where its money is going, the Pentagon is offering an open invitation to its contractors and bureaucrats to engage in waste, fraud and abuse. Both major party platforms cite a Pentagon audit as a priority, yet neither candidate has spoken about the issue on the campaign trail. Regardless of who wins on November 8th, they should support bipartisan legislation designed to give the Pentagon economic incentives to get its fiscal house in order.

The next level of unnecessary spending is the investment in weapons systems that are overpriced, underperforming, or unnecessary. Programs ripe for reduction or elimination include the F-35 aircraft, which a recent analysis by the Project on Government Oversight argues may never be ready for combat. That's a sobering revelation when applied to a project that could be the most expensive ever undertaken by the Pentagon, with a total price tag of over $1.4 trillion to build and operate over its lifetime. Even more questionable is the Pentagon's plan to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and land-based missiles. Hillary Clinton has questioned the need for a buildup on this scale, with a particular focus on the dangerous and destabilizing plan to build a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, as have experts like former Secretary of Defense William Perry.

But rooting out waste and shedding unnecessary weapons projects is just the beginning of getting the Pentagon budget under control. The most important priority should be to craft a realistic defense strategy and adjust spending priorities accordingly. A team of experts headed by Benjamin Friedman, Christopher Preble and Trevor Thrall of the Cato Institute has done just that. The team estimates that a policy of restraint that focuses on core defense needs while avoiding adventurism or spending to address challenges that should be handled by allies could save up to $1 trillion over the next ten years. That's a stark contrast to the cries for more that have emanated from the Pentagon, hawks on Capitol Hill, and corporate-funded think tanks. For that matter, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have called for substantial increases in Pentagon spending, which is already more than was spent at the height of the Reagan administration and substantially higher than the Cold War average.

There is another way forward. As Benjamin Friedman notes in a piece published in September at War on the Rocks, part of the problem is an overly ambitious vision of what the U.S. military can and should do. He describes the current strategy of "primacy" as an approach that "sees threats everywhere and prescribes U.S. forces everywhere to meet them . . . it is less a strategy, which prioritizes resources to meet specific goals, than a vague invocation to try to use U.S. military forces to manage the world."

Friedman further notes that changing strategies can save far more money than the approaches to waste, fraud and abuse mentioned earlier in this piece. Fixing those problems could save tens of billions of dollars, but a strategy of restraint could save far more even as it provides a more coherent blueprint for future Pentagon spending. As he puts it, "The Pentagon's efficient pursuit of unwise goals is a far richer target for cuts."

A the strategy of restraint set out by Friedman would focus more heavily on the Navy as a surge force able to get to areas of potential conflict on short notice, and cut back on ground troops and overseas bases accordingly. Under this strategy, even the Navy's budget could be trimmed as it divests itself of the requirement of being persistently and permanently present in Asia and other potential areas of conflict. This approach would allow, for example, for a reduction of hugely expensive aircraft carrier task forces.

On the nuclear front, a force based on submarine-based ballistic missiles rather than a triad of air-, sea-, and land-based nuclear delivery vehicles would reap at least $18 billion in savings in the next decade by eliminating the need for new nuclear-armed missiles and bombers, and much more beyond that as the need to sustain those excess forces is removed from the equation.

Two other key building blocks of a strategy of restraint would be to let allies in Europe and Asia take the lead in dealing with any challenges that arise from Russia or China, and abandoning the futile policy of regime change that has wrought enduring damage to global security in Iraq and Libya.

Obviously, not all advocates of reforming the Pentagon and refocusing U.S. strategy will agree with all aspects of the strategy of restraint outlined above. But it should be a central part of any serious discussion of how to align U.S. defense strategy with the realities of the emerging global security landscape, with considerable budgetary savings as a byproduct. The hawks in the Trump and Clinton camps should be challenged to explain why their expansive approaches to U.S. military commitments make more sense than a more focused approach that doesn't require U.S. forces to be almost everywhere, poised to fight battles that don't serve U.S. or global security interests.