The $68 Billion Question

Sen. Coburn’s plan to save the Pentagon.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security.

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