Congress must avoid ham-fisted defense cuts

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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The freshmen class roared into Congress vowing to get federal spending under control. And even though many of them recognize and revere the constitutional requirement to “provide for the common defense,” they refused to take the defense budget “off the table.” Good for them.

But President Obama’s adventure in Libya is a stark reminder that, when taking a hard look at Pentagon spending, Congress must be sure they get it right. It they don’t, they will put our security at risk.

Regardless of where members stand on the merits of the president’s decision to intervene in Libya, it is readily apparent that this mission could not have taken off without the United States. The other coalition allies, including our NATO partners, simply don’t have the horses.

Only the U.S. has the capacity to project power globally. And that power is there for a reason: We have vital national interests to protect in every region of the world.

Again, this is not to say that the U.S. has vital interests in Libya. Arguably, the president could have been wiser in his use of force. But the salient fact is that the White House has the capacity to act in Libya only because our military is trained, equipped, and ready.

Scrutinizing defense is fine. Congress should take every effort to drive fraud, waste, and abuse out of all federal budgets, the Pentagon’s included. But lawmakers must not cut the military spending needed to meet our current obligations and the challenges of the future. Unfortunately, they can learn a lesson of what not to do from the secretary of defense.

In the name of “savings,” Secretary Robert Gates has imposed budget cuts that, in many cases, appear short-sighted — calculated to meet short-term budget targets rather than long-term security needs. For example, Gates slashed the research budget of the office responsible for anticipating surprises the Pentagon may have to handle. Apparently, Gates doesn’t use them very much. Perhaps he thinks it’s no longer very important to plan for unlikely but not implausible situations. But that’s an odd position for someone who finds himself scrambling desperately to deal with an unexpected conflict with Libya, an earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Japan, and a wholesale makeover of the Middle East.

There is a smarter way to control spending, but it will require the freshmen to get organized. The best way to build a house is not to have a committee of architects draw up a plan. It’s to have a single architect and a single general contractor, and someone to do the carpentry, someone to do the plumbing, a roofer, an electrician and so on.

The same goes for rebuilding the Pentagon budget from the ground up. Congress needs a cadre of experts, each focused laser-like on a piece of the problem. If the freshmen work together as a construction team, they’ll get somewhere: a budget built to deliver a Pentagon capable of providing for the common defense now and in the foreseeable future. That is a far better strategy than simply lopping 10 percent off the construction budget and walking away, leaving someone else with the job of building a high-efficiency house with the money left.

Certainly the Pentagon budget is not the only or even the best target for the Congressional budget axe. There are a host of civilian programs that have failed to achieve their goals, year after year, for decades. But the Pentagon should be scrutinized as well. The goal, however, should not be to cut a predetermined amount of money from defense. It should be to seek out and implement real efficiencies. Every new member should pick up hammer, a screw driver, a saw, or plunger and get to it. Together, they can help build a military that helps keep America safe, free, and prosperous.

James Jay Carafano is a senior national security analyst at The Heritage Foundation.