Lawmakers and defense experts proposed on Wednesday a bevy of reforms to military spending but said billions in indiscriminate budget cuts and political sensitivity to veterans’ issues will likely lead to inaction.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), the first speaker at the "Defend and Reform" event co-hosted by Concerned Veterans for America and the Weekly Standard, described himself as a "deficit hawk and a defense hawk."
While it is important for the U.S. military to be prepared for whatever unexpected conflicts arise, Coburn said there are ample opportunities for the Department of Defense (DOD) to operate more efficiently.
He noted the consolidation of the Air Force’s operations at its three strategic depots, which he said would save $1.6 billion, and Army requests for as much as $2.5 billion for equipment needs like cargo planes that can be met for $100 million as examples.
Coburn, an ardent proponent of auditing the DOD, introduced a bill Tuesday that would compel the Pentagon to provide reviewable financial statements. He said the Pentagon currently has about 7,000 auditors, 11,000 accountants, 15,000 financial administrators, and 2,600 payroll officers.
"That would seem to be enough staff to audit the Pentagon," he said.
However, nearly $1 trillion in military budget cuts looming over the next decade has stalled talk of reform in Congress.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.) said House Republicans hope to develop a short-term funding resolution before the current one expires on Sept. 30 that would later enable Congress to soften the blow of the cuts stemming from sequestration, rather than extend them for a year.
Although Hunter said he supports a "big Navy" that can project American force and promote international trade, he called the Navy’s and the Obama administration’s decision to "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region "an absolute joke." Budget cuts have prompted the Navy to consider sidelining two-thirds of its surge-ready carrier-strike groups and canceling half of its surface ship capabilities next year as conflicts like the Syrian civil war continue to boil over in the Middle East.
"You don’t fight wars when you want to, you fight wars when you have to," said Hunter, who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine.
"[The Navy] will have to maintain that posture [in the Pacific] while at the same time gearing up for a war in the Middle East."
As the armed services attempt to cope with spending reductions, lawmakers have resisted calls to tweak the military’s benefit and compensation programs.
The White House has threatened to veto the latest Department of Defense Appropriations Act because it said lawmakers did not increase beneficiary fees for TRICARE, the Pentagon’s in-house health system, and authorized pay raises higher than what the administration requested.
Some experts have argued that generous benefits from TRICARE encourage recipients to overuse the system at rates much higher than civilian plans, draining resources away from military training and equipment upgrades. Defense health care costs swelled by nearly 180 percent between 2000 and 2010, more than double the rate of the national increase.
Members of Congress are uneasy about the potential blowback from changing programs like TRICARE, said Richard Spencer, a member of the Defense Business Board (DBB), in an interview.
"No one want[s] to put their head on the guillotine or into the meat cleaver machine when it comes to veterans," Spencer told the Washington Free Beacon after the event.
"There’s a huge guilt complex America has right now. With only one percent serving there’s 99 percent that aren’t serving. So why would you want to take a thing away or reform anything for that one percent?"
DBB has proposed various cost-saving measures for the military’s benefit programs, such as allowing service members to make annual contributions to individual retirement accounts that would also receive government contributions based on how long members serve. The military’s current pension system, which only guarantees benefits to those that have served for at least 20 years, only affects 17 percent of the military, he said.
Thomas Donnelly, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said he understands the hesitance of some lawmakers to embrace military spending reforms.
"If everybody’s entitlements are going to be reformed, that’s cool," he said. "But if the military’s retirements are cut to save my baby boomer entitlements, I wouldn’t be the politician to support that."
Donnelly said many of the past and present reforms proposed for the Pentagon "def[y] the laws of physics" and are "militarily nonsensical," such as the suggestion by Coburn and others that the military should give up F-35 fighter jets in exchange for cheaper F-18s. F-18s cannot take off from amphibious ships but only the larger aircraft carriers, meaning they would actually cost more to operate than F-35s, he said.
He added that "we get our money’s worth" from the military compared to other government agencies and said the real problems are reduced training for troops due to budget cuts and other mandatory spending that Congress has failed to address.
Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending will account for more than 10 percent of U.S. GDP by 2016, compared to about 3 percent for national defense spending, according to an AEI report.
"You guys feel free to go rob the Pentagon," he said. "I’m going to go for Social Security and Medicare."