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Pentagon officials must acknowledge the reality of sequestration and take advantage of the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan to tackle long-term spending problems, a group of defense experts said Thursday.
A bipartisan panel at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, slammed the Pentagon for raising the alarm on sequestration but failing to adequately prepare for the harsh cuts. The Defense Department stands to lose $1 trillion over a decade; the first cuts kicked in March 1.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday during his Asia trip that the sequester is temporary and will last only through Oct. 1. But back in Washington, talks to prevent sequestration beyond the current fiscal year have made no visible progress, and experts agree the Pentagon must start planning for a potential trillion-dollar reduction in planned spending.
“When there is this much a consensus across this broad a spectrum of people, somebody at the Pentagon has to wake up and start listening,” said Gordon Adams, a foreign policy professor at American University who worked in the Clinton administration. “There still is some creeping lack of realism, fingers being crossed or hope that this will all go away.”
With American troops out of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan coming to a close, the Pentagon should take the opportunity to address a handful of persistent problems that drive up spending, experts said.
An overhaul of the bloated Pentagon bureaucracy, which expanded significantly after 9/11, could save billions of dollars and reduce overhead costs, they said.
DoD is filled with countless task forces and agencies, sometimes with overlapping responsibilities. About 100,000 uniformed positions that support infrastructure could be eliminated to save $125 billion over a decade, according to a Bipartisan Policy Center report.
“There’s not a trigger-puller in that lot, there’s nobody with a sharp bayonet,” said retired Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board. “We’ve got more people in the rear with the gear than we have at the pointy end of the spear.”
Excess physical infrastructure also propels spending, experts said, and the Pentagon needs to reduce its inventory and overall footprint as the military shrinks in size.
Shuttering bases and canceling aircraft orders could save money, but they are unsavory tasks for lawmakers in Congress who are afraid of paying a price at the polls in their home districts. The Army spends about 11 percent of its budget operating its installations around the world, and the Air Force uses 8 percent of its funds for base operation and depot maintenance.
Reforming the military compensation system also could produce significant savings, but it has not been touched in 40 years. Military pay, allowances and health care costs have nearly doubled in the past decade while the active-duty force has grown by only 3 percent, the panelists said.
These proposals would require significant courage from Pentagon officials and members of Congress, but the experts said they are the necessary steps toward fiscal responsibility.
“We should be doing all these things even if the budget was going up,” said Todd Harrison of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “We should be having the same conversation and recommending all the same things. Even people who are in denial, you need to listen up because these are smart things to do.”