Congress has appointed a supercommittee to reduce federal deficits, and the U.S. military may be taking a hit. Bloomberg Government asked the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, a Republican, and Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat: How far can the cutbacks go?
Should the U.S. change its strategy of global engagement in light of budget constraints? If so, what should a new strategy focus on?
McKeon: The special role the United States plays in world affairs should not be taken for granted. We abdicate our global leadership at our own peril, and the peril of free nations everywhere. It’s a position worth preserving. Our military has already absorbed several rounds of budget cuts, so we need to start looking at the main drivers of our deficit—entitlements—to fix this problem.
Levin: The United States needs to remain actively engaged throughout the world. That engagement should be primarily diplomatic and economic. In the military sphere, we should be helping our friends and allies take the lead in addressing the threats they confront more directly than we do.
In an era of tighter budgets, is a consolidation of the defense industry inevitable, and if so, what impact would that have on innovation, production, and keeping down costs?
Levin: The consolidation of major defense contractors that took place in the 1990s was never reversed, even when we doubled defense spending over the last decade. Because healthy competition is so critically important to keep costs down, further consolidation as a general matter should be avoided. The Defense Dept. should also monitor consolidation closely at the subcontractor level to ensure that essential competition is also maintained in the supply base.
McKeon: Job loss and less innovation is a real possibility if tighter budgets drive consolidation. The very innovative spirit we rely on to drive down costs may well be hampered as we tighten budgets. This year we saw General Electric’s (GE) decision to self-fund remaining development costs for the competitive engine program for the F-35. They are getting the engine over the hump on their own dime, and the benefits from several decades of engine competition could yield immense taxpayer savings. This is the kind of industry innovation that can save the taxpayer money in the long run, and could be far harder to accomplish in the future.
How can Congress set aside such parochial interests as preserving defense-related jobs in individual districts to arrive at decisions in the broader national interest?
McKeon: I dispute the notion that members are pursuing parochial interests at the expense of national security. Indeed, senior military commanders have warned the committee that our force is under stress because the mission set is expanding while resources are shrinking. Often that stress is felt more keenly at bases and posts around the country than at the Pentagon. I have been impressed by my colleagues’ ability to articulate how a constituent manifestation of that stress impacts our national readiness.
Levin: In the coming months and years, we will have to make critical decisions on the prioritization of funds as we confront the imperative of deficit reduction. The checks and balances between the two houses of Congress are needed to help limit parochial interests in the allocation of defense resources. But a greater driver of non-parochial thinking is probably the extremely tight fiscal environment we’re in, requiring each of us to rededicate ourselves to making decisions based on the best national security interests of our country, not on what is best for any individual state or district.