Washington Post gets it wrong

The Washington Post seems to have become the house organ for those who insist the defense budget must be saved at all costs, arguing today that the "fiscal cliff" (which I have described as a fiscal "slide") would be a disaster for defense.

It's a case made by a number of folks, most of them (like the defense industry and the neo-conservative think tanks) cozier with the Iron Triangle than the Post. And, given that we spend more on defense than most of the rest of the world put together and have a global military capacity second to none (no one else even tries to match us), the argument falls on its face.

What is disturbing about the Post editorial, however, is not only that it is wrong on the merits, it is simply wrong on the facts. It claims that sequester would force the Pentagon to "fire" more than 100,000 civilian workers. Presumably, they got that number from a back-of-the-envelope report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

But even the CSBA study acknowledges that "furloughs" are part of the likely DOD response to a sequester. Lay-offs simply cost too much to carry out, and the furlough route, while tough, would be manageable in a department that has the largest back office (proportionally) of 29 countries whose "tooth-to-tail" ratio was studied by McKinsey in 2010. Only the Swiss, who have not gone to war in centuries, have a larger back office.

The Post says training for non-deployed forces would be cut back in a sequester, but training funds are in the most flexible accounts under a sequester, allowing DOD managers to protect training, if they like, and maybe cut less grass at Ft. Belvoir for a few months.

Oddly, the Post says shipbuilding funds would decline 4.5 percent under a sequester, though the Office of Management and Budget has said clearly that the sequester would take 9.2 percent of defense resources. In any case, the sequester leaves untouched current contracts and programs in shipbuilding and elsewhere, with no impact on current production.

Most bewildering of all, the Post argues that management savings could be had, especially in the area of health care programs "which consume nearly 30 percent of the budget." Health care programs are certainly an issue at DOD, as they are for the rest of us. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, health care programs consume 8 percent of the defense budget, not 30 percent. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."

The debate over the defense budget, in the larger framework of the coming month's fiscal negotiations, is going to be interesting. But it is not doomsday for defense. And arguing from strange facts does not make it otherwise.

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National Security

The $68 Billion Question

Sen. Coburn’s plan to save the Pentagon.

We spend a lot in the Defense Department that doesn't have much to do with defense, and it costs us a lot of money. The latest documentation of this reality is in the report Sen. Tom Coburn released Thursday: Department of Everything. Coburn supported the draft Simpson-Bowles report a couple of years ago that proposed budget reductions and revenue increases, and he has been a consistent gadfly against wasteful federal spending, including defense.

In his new, well-researched and very detailed report, he concludes that we could save nearly $68 billion over ten years if we just got DOD out of doing things that have little or nothing to do with the basic mission of the forces -- in his words "fighting and winning the nation's wars." Things like breast cancer research, electric cars, wind power, running a U.S. school system for children of troops, searching for evidence of extra-terrestrials, tuition assistance programs, and one of the ten largest grocery store chains in the United States (the military commissaries).

Coburn's report is a worthy inheritor of the tradition of "Golden Fleece" awards handed out annually by another gadfly senator, William Proxmire, three decades ago to "recognize" wasteful federal spending.  But he could have gone a lot further.

For one thing, Coburn does not say he would eliminate all these activities and save the dollars. He says he would transfer things like non-core health and energy research programs to other agencies. But he also suggests that doing so would "free up" funding for priorities at DOD. Of course, that would not save any money. Congress might or might not fund these programs in other agencies, but if the Pentagon kept the funds and shed the programs, there would be no savings at all. So there is a limit to his argument about savings from the reforms he proposes.

What's more, less than half of the potential "savings" Coburn cites come from unnecessary and non-core activities like the ones described above. The remainder comes from a broader area of activity: DOD overhead, or the "back office." As I wrote last summer, overhead is one of the three reasons we spend too much on defense. As Coburn notes, citing the Defense Business Board, there are 340,000 military personnel in the Pentagon performing commercial functions; roughly 560,000 active duty personnel are never deployed. That's a huge back office.

But Coburn offers no specific, concrete proposals here, just a blunt suggestion to trim a quarter of the funding and convert the jobs to civilian positions. He does not say what work would not be done; and, of course, transferring the work to civilians won't save funds.

The defense budget is going down, and the really hard question is how to bring it down sensibly. Coburn's "waste" proposals do not get us there because they do not actually save money -- they just spend it on more combat-related things. That's good, but it won't help manage a defense draw-down.

And Coburn's report missed some of the most significant mission creep afflicting the military: the billions of Pentagon dollars going to training security forces in other countries (more than $80 billion over the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere); DOD's support for the budgets of other countries (Coalition Support Funds for Jordan and Pakistan, over $15 billion); the DOD-funded development assistance programs that started in Iraq and Afghanistan (with at least $10 billion on Commander's Emergency Response Program funding); military advice on how other nations should govern themselves (Provincial Reconstruction Teams, funded through the CERP program); and the growing DOD investment in public diplomacy (with some $10-20 billion over the past decade for "strategic communications"). (For more on some of these programs, see the report Becky Williams and I wrote in 2011.)

The Department of Defense would like very much to expand these programs globally and make them permanent; today it calls them "Building Partner Capacity." Some want our military to become administrators, developers, "stabilizers," and global providers of internal stability. These are all mission creep, they are all expensive, and they all require close scrutiny. They are not particularly core to the "fight and win the nation's wars" mission Sen. Coburn is focused on. But taking a good hard look at these missions could help reshape our military for the real challenges we face and save resources in the bargain.

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