This originally appeared in my Townhall column: “The defense budget, in constant dollars, has held steady for nearly 30 years. However, our armed forces are ill-equipped for conflict. Expenditures have remained stable for decades, yet America now has 35 percent fewer combat brigades, 53 percent fewer ships and 63 percent fewer combat air squadrons. How in the world does military preparedness worsen while spending goes virtually unchanged?
The rise in spending in conjunction with a decline in capacity points to financial mismanagement and legislative abuse. Americans are witnessing a rapid acceleration in what I call defenseless debt, a paradox wherein military liabilities increase alongside a simultaneous deterioration in American security. And this disturbing trend has worsened under the Obama administration.
The Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) fund epitomizes defenseless debt. The non-discretionary, “emergency” account has essentially become an executive and Pentagon slush fund used to circumvent current spending caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. A Stimson Center report found that OCO money has increased significantly relative to the declining number of U.S. troops overseas, from $1 million per troop to $4.9 million. And the rather inexpensive fight against ISIS cannot account for the eye-popping jump in expenditures.
This slush fund presumably finances all the advise and assist programs, or what CNN termed “small wars,” initiated in Somalia, Libya and Yemen, among other places. But these small wars do not reflect or represent a broader, coherent plan. The same Stimson report noted multiple Pentagon officials as saying recent increases in OCO funding “are not rooted in strategy.”
Increased spending not used for improving readiness means pilots and maintainers, for instance, now have to cannibalize parts from old jets to keep new ones flying; all in order to meet the demands of an administration that has now been at “war” longer than President Bush. Military officials conclude that the current approach only “generates insecurity in the Defense workforce…and creates long-term uncertainty for defense planners.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration and some in Congress also funnel money into defense programs that further weaken military readiness. Biofuels companies, for example, received $16 million in defense contracts in 2014. But as naval aviator and instructor Ike Kiefer explains, using biofuels instead of oil to fuel the military would require 3.2 billion acres, “one billion more than all U.S. territory including Alaska.” Another absolutely unachievable long-term solution.
Most recently, the president issued an executive directive demanding military planners consider climate effects during operational planning. The ambiguous instruction has forced the military to expend manpower and money to find answers for problems where no desirable outcome has been put forth by the administration. The government should be championing cutting-edge, environmental solutions that better U.S. military advantage, not impair it.
But the era of defenseless debt truly climaxed with Obama’s decision to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for reasons unrelated to defense in 2016. He became the first president in history to veto a defense bill in order to secure more domestic spending. And when Congress acquiesced, both branches set the wrong precedent that the government’s constitutional duty to provide for the common defense matched their imagined duty to provide for the domestic welfare.
All of this to say, years of defenseless debt has set a precedent. And precedent equates to permanency in government. As Ronald Reagan warned years ago, government policies and programs are “the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll see on this earth.”
The president and some in Congress have established a precedent for future officials to commandeer the defense budget for any and all matters. Bernie Sanders, if elected, will likely turn to defense cash once basic economics catch up with the inevitable failure of his domestic agenda. Hillary Clinton will likely do no different. Donald Trump is perhaps the only conceivable candidate of the three that might shun the pattern of defenseless debt.
In any case, this is not a call for more spending. This is a call for wise spending. Congress could consider some of the following as they debate the 2017 defense budget:
- Decrease or eliminate funding for programs that do not improve advantage, such assecurity assistance programs and environmental initiatives.
- Trim the bureaucracy in the Department of Defense.
- Institute zero-based budgeting reforms that require every dollar be justified.
Each measure aims to replace America’s current defenseless debt strategy with one that builds an effective and cost-efficient military. It can be done.”