The latest two-year budget deal that skyrockets Pentagon and domestic spending by at least $320 billion is laying the foundation for a major economic disaster for our future. Perversely and counter-intuitively, the spike in defense spending won’t solve the military’s readiness problems.
Whatever short-term benefits we gain from tax reform and the budget agreement — and there will be some — they will be wholly consumed over the long term. First let me address the biggest offender: the ballooning Pentagon budget.
There has been no shortage of pundits, officials, and military officers issuing dire warnings that the military has been “pushed past the breaking point,” and only an infusion of massive sums of money can fix it. The military has indeed been stressed, but the primary cause is not a lack of funding: The culprit is overuse.
Though poor financial management and an unwillingness to reform how the military is organized have contributed, there is one overriding reason for today’s shortfall: Readiness has suffered because of 17 consecutive years of overextension on combat missions around the world — peripheral missions focused more on spreading democracy and nation building than with U.S. national security.
Papering over the real challenges at the DoD with hundreds of billions of dollars — without solving the core problems — will not improve military readiness. Increasing the national debt to dramatically increase the Pentagon budget will therefore not necessarily make the nation safer — but it will compound the country’s future financial problems.
The two-year deal Congress passed pleased “conservatives” because it would boost defense spending in 2018 to $700 billion and $716 billion for 2019. This represents a $165-billion increase from the previous cap — and doesn’t include the ever-slushy Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) funds, which would be in the neighborhood of $60 billion on top of that.
The first OCO was passed by Congress seven days after 9/11 because the base budget hadn’t accounted for fighting wars, but has essentially turned into a Pentagon slush fund, as the money is now routinely spent for items that have nothing to do with war.
Meanwhile, those who want more spending here at home were happy because they got a $131 billion boost.
Leaders in Congress have acclaimed the short-term benefit these funds promise to deliver. These celebrations, however, mask the true magnitude of the crisis we face. A little-read government report found that over and above the $20 trillion debt we have, there is more than double that amount hanging over our heads.
The FY 2016 Financial Report of the United States Government reported that projected expenditures “for scheduled benefits for Social Security, Medicare Parts A, B and D, and other social insurance programs over 75 years” was expected to “exceed projected revenues by about $46.7 trillion.” A Forbes article claims the true level of unfunded liabilities is closer to $210 trillion.
It is therefore an urgent national security imperative to address the debt. In 2010 then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen correctly warned that the “most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Not China, not Russia, not North Korea, nor radical Islamic fighters, but the national debt.
It took us years to get into this problem, and it can’t be solved overnight, but there are some short- and long-term measures we must take immediately to mitigate the severity of potential future consequences, at least as far as national security is concerned.
First, the most effective and immediate way the president could improve military readiness would be to discontinue all unnecessary military operations worldwide. President Trump should order a commission that looks at each of the seven countries where U.S. troops engage in combat operations.
This assessment should examine the extent to which each operation protects or enhances national security, how much each costs annually, and assess the likely regional affects if each is shut down. The vast majority of those operations could be shuttered and regional complexities mitigated without any harm to U.S. security — and it would save almost $100 billion a year (plus remove the requirement for OCO spending).
For example, the best candidate to be terminated first would be the U.S. presence in Syria. There are still reported to be upwards of 2,000 US military personnel there, yet since ISIS’ defeat, they have no clearly defined mission that in any way contributes to U.S. national security.
These troops could be withdrawn back to their home bases almost immediately, and doing so would reduce the potential to clash with Russian troops or militia, as happened in Der Ez Zoir in early February.
Closing out the mission in Afghanistan would need to be conducted over a two year period to minimize disruption and enable the Kabul government time to make adjustments to how it secures its country.
Our military has been in the region for 17 years, yet new factions of our enemies continue to form. This cannot be solved militarily. There must be a change in politics and diplomacy.
Second, over an 8 to 10-year timeframe, the DoD could transform itself into a more lethal and powerful force that is designed to dominate in expected future operating environments such as potential clashes against North Korea, Russia, or Chinese forces. After the National Commission on the Future of the Army endorsed the idea, Congress ordered the DoD to examine a new operating construct in the 2017 NDAA (section 1091).
Variously known as the Macgregor Transformation Model (MTM), the Pentagon is currently testing a representative element of the MTM called the Reconnaissance Strike Group that uses new and emerging technologies along with a reorganized structure designed to best meet future ground combat needs.
As important as its improved operational capabilities, however, the system’s architect Douglas Macgregor estimates once MTM has been adopted, it could save $18 to $22 billion a year over currently projected costs.
Budgets and strategy go hand-in-hand. The U.S. is wealthy, but it must set priorities to ensure our national security. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and there are multiple and critical national requirements that compete for limited dollars.
Choosing to satisfy short-term desires by sacrificing long-term viability places our national security at increasing peril over time. American leaders can choose to either make difficult, calculated decisions now — while there is still time — or be forced to mitigate disaster during a crisis later.
Commentary by Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.
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