In October, a runaway U.S. Army surveillance blimp caused havoc across parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Its broken tether brought down power lines, causing a blackout in some areas, and triggered more than $300,000 in damage claims. Begun in 1998, the JLENS blimp system is designed to detect cruise missiles and enemy aircraft, and has cost taxpayers over $2.7 billion. Though a 2012 Pentagon assessment said JLENS had "low system reliability," it is still being funded. A runaway blimp — I can't think of a better metaphor for our military budget.
The latest "bipartisan budget act" awarded the military with $548 billion in fiscal 2016 and $551 billion in fiscal 2017, plus another $118 billion in overseas contingency operations funding. Defense spending has long been America's sacred cow, but I think the time has come to make some hamburger.
It is common to cite the all-too-true statistic that the U.S. spends more on our military than the next seven countries combined. In 2014, we expended $610 billion compared to the $601 billion spent by China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India and Germany combined. That alone should prove unsettling to Americans, especially when we realize that this figure represents 20 cents of every tax dollar collected. That's almost as much as we spend on Social Security or our combined spending on Medicare and Medicaid, and does nothing to address our rising national debt. The past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, believes that "the single greatest threat to our national security is our debt." Not ISIS or China, but our debt.
It is well past time to examine our military budget with scalpel in-hand. For example, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is responsible for supplying almost everything to the military from bullets to vehicle parts. As of 2008, DLA had stockpiled a 14-year inventory of Humvee front suspensions, yet continued to purchase 7,437 more of this part between 2010-2012, even though demand had been cut in half.
In 2012, we had almost 6,000 M1 Abrams tanks in service and another 2,400 in reserve. Even the military said that was enough, but the tanks continued to roll off the assembly line.
Care to guess why we have all of those excess Humvee parts and Abrams tanks? Look to Congress. It spent an additional $255 million on 42 more tanks in 2012. Why? Just follow the money. It leads to the General Dynamics Land Systems' production line in Lima, Ohio. The cash subsidizes jobs because no member of Congress wants to kill a product that employs people in his or her district. Multiply this problem by our 435 congressional districts.
Excess military brass represents another issue. In 2010 we had 963 generals and admirals, far more than is required to lead our forces. A New York Times investigation in 2010 revealed the staff provided to the top leaders can cost over $1 million per officer. Some retain their own drivers, security guards, secretaries, chefs and valets as well as their own C-40 jets with beds on board. Ka-ching!
And where are these generals and admirals flying off to? According to a 2014 report by the Centre for Research on Globalization, we operate 737 bases in 63 countries and have military personnel stationed in 156 countries. Since 9/11 we've added bases in seven countries. To staff all of this the U.S. deploys over 255,000 military personnel worldwide and maintains over 845,400 different buildings stretching over 30 million acres. Remember, this jaw-dropping figure does not include the massive bases we have within U.S. territory.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Before we increase the Pentagon's budget, let's ask some hard questions about its real equipment needs, bloated officer ranks and perks, and foreign bases, to pick just three topics. How many tanks does ISIL have? Can we still afford to give generals their own chefs? Do we really need 21 bases in Germany that cost us $4 billion a year, exclusive of personnel? In this age of an economically weakened Russia, asymmetric war tactics, and quick-strike forces, might we get by with 15 bases? How about 12?
As politicians award more dollars to the military and concurrently worry about our rising debt, might we suggest that these topics need not be mutually exclusive?
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.