The QDR’s Catastrophic Report

It's time to stop passing the buck on defense spending.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We are delighted to note that Tom Mahnken thinks the report of the Quadrennial Defense Review independent panel “should generate a debate over America’s role in the world.” It is high time we had such a debate. He also correctly states, “The panel’s report stands in stark contrast with the recent report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force.” We served on that task force and would be pleased to discuss the stark contrasts between our report and the QDR report in person or before Congress.

But we’d need to begin by pointing out that Mahnken misses the substance and purpose of the Sustainable Defense Task Force’s report. Mahnken goes on to say that our report seeks “to curtail America’s global role to fit a shrinking defense budget,” invoking the international role and pursuit of interests “that have animated American grand strategy since the end of World War II.” But the Sustainable Defense Task Force budget adjustments aren’t focused on curtailing the interests of the postwar years. Instead, our report focused on pulling back the vastly expanded and more ambitious military missions that have been pursued in the last decade by Washington. Even beyond the mindless, needless, senseless invasion of Iraq, this last 10 years has seen far more extensive (and costly) presence ground missions than were attempted during the Cold War.

Despite the lack of any serious military competitor, U.S. investment in military force has grown well beyond Cold War levels. For example, even controlling for inflation, defense spending is now higher than at any time since the end of World War II, and the base defense budget, exclusive of war costs, is higher than at the peak of the Reagan buildup.

As the Sustainable Defense Task Force sought to demonstrate, failing to make reasonable reductions in military spending in this time of complex fiscal pressures will end up being far more of a threat to U.S. interests than any external enemy. Both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen have pointed out how vital economic security is to national security.

It’s understandable that Mahnken would praise the work of the QDR panel, given that he was on the panel’s staff. But his praise is off the mark. For example, he commends the panel for tackling the “sensitive issue” of rising personnel costs. But isn’t it their job to tackle sensitive issues? Not to mention that their solution is that reliable D.C. chestnut, establishing a commission. Our report, on the other hand, calls for reducing the end strength of the Army and Marine Corps to their pre-9-11 levels, reforming the way annual pay raises are calculated, and bringing costs down in the military health insurance program, TRICARE.

Similarly, the panel acknowledges that the Defense department must do everything it can to achieve cost savings on acquisition and overhead, but here again they pass the buck. Their solution is to pour more money into modernizing the force, a meaningless process that has already been going on for the last 13 years.

A better plan, as we recommend in our report, would be to cancel or scale back specific systems that deal with threats from a bygone era or are poorly performing: for example, the V-22 and F-35.

If the United States is to make progress in reducing its annual budget deficit, defense spending must be on the table. Although the baseline defense budget has gone up in real terms for 13 years and is now nearly double what it was before 9/11, Gates expects it to continue to grow. The QDR panel that Mahnken praises had an opportunity to help the deficit commission make some smart choices about how reduce the deficit. Instead they made the situation worse by arguing that we need to spend even more than Gates wants.

Our task force, meanwhile, did not take the easy way out.

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