A War Plan Against Military Budget Tricks

Landing well over budget.

Photographer: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, President Barack Obama is poised to veto Congress's annual defense legislation. For the second year in row, he's justified in doing so.

While the congressional approach has several problems -- including a ban on transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay -- one of the most egregious is a budgetary gimmick: The spending package approved by the House on June 11 effectively raids the military's emergency war fund to pay for normal Pentagon operations.

The so-called Overseas Contingency Operations money is supposed to be used for the fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Instead, because the money is not subject to the spending caps set by last year's bipartisan budget deal, the House has simply reallocated $16 billion of the $60 billion fund. Some of this spending seems more about saving domestic jobs than military readiness.

Not only is the move foolhardy -- the fund could run out by May 1 unless the new president makes an emergency request -- but it is also unnecessary. Trimming $16 billion from the $600 billion Pentagon budget, without hurting vital military capabilities, shouldn’t be that hard.

This is not hyperbole. A few back-of-the-envelope calculations, based on such publicly available sources as the Congressional Research Service and Bloomberg Government, show how it might be done.

Canceling the House's plan to purchase additional (and buggy) F-35 jets, as well as unnecessary F/A-18 Hornet fighters and Black Hawk helicopters, would save about $6.9 billion. Disbanding one of the Navy's carrier-group air wings, which hasn't deployed since 2011 and as requested by the Pentagon, would save $200 million. Reducing personnel by about 37,000 -- again as requested by the Pentagon, which has said it would allow the services to better train and equip the remaining forces -- would save about $3.25 billion. Delaying and possibly canceling the purchase of two new littoral combat ships -- one of the worst-managed acquisitions in military history -- and slowing down the construction of other craft would save about $3.1 billion. Delaying non-urgent upgrades of Abrams tanks would save about $558 million. And putting off the repair of some dilapidated buildings on military bases -- or, better yet, demolishing them -- would save $2.4 billion.

That all adds up to $16.4 billion. As the House and Senate meet to reconcile their separate budget plans, they should feel free to make emendations to this list.

Of course, these sorts of short-term savings are paltry compared to long-term plans to spend $35 billion on three new supercarriers, $55 billion on a new long-range bomber, and $350 billion rebuilding the nuclear arsenal. But if Congress could at least show restraint now from dipping into the war-fighting fund, it would set a precedent for smarter decision making to save big money down the road. If lawmakers refuse, Obama should go ahead and wield his veto.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.