We need a 'weapons BRAC'

The American defense community stands at a crossroads. The need to trim the defense budget, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently put it, is a "matter of simple arithmetic and political reality." Meanwhile, this year's defense authorization bill, passed by the House late last month, contains a provision that allows work to continue on the second engine for the F-35 fighter. The makers of that engine, GE and Rolls Royce, have agreed to self-fund the project. They're betting that they can round up support in Congress to bring it back to life — despite the fact that the Pentagon has previously issued a stop-work order on the project, which it says is "a waste of taxpayer money."

The zombie second engine represents just one example of an all-too-familiar phenomenon: No member of Congress, no matter how dedicated a budget hawk, can vote against funding weapons programs that provide jobs in his or her district — at least, not if they care about getting re-elected. The engine project crosses party lines. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a left-wing Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, a conservative Republican, both back the project. Ensuring the continued development of the second engine prompted Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, both Republicans, to jettison their usual rhetoric about reform and fiscal responsibility in order to support the project. Their actions represent a wider trend.


Weapons-related boondoggles are an age-old problem; they're often seen as just part of the process for a country flush with cash. But in the current environment, America can longer afford to procure wasteful, unneeded systems along with those that are critical to protecting the nation. Luckily, there is a way to solve the problem that's proven, credible, bipartisan and will help the Pentagon match funding priorities to its strategy for defending the country.

In the late 1980s, America faced the need to reconcile tight budgets with congressional resistance to shuttering any of the scores of unnecessary military bases and installations. In response, Barry Goldwater and Carl Levin in the Senate and Dick Armey in the House led Congress in working with the Pentagon leadership to create a process called Base Realignment and Closure. BRAC, as the process is known in defense circles (and in states like Maryland, where it is having a profound effect), was designed to lessen the political incentive to fight base closure by limiting the fallout for any one member of Congress who fails to prevent a closure in his or her district.


It works like this: The secretary of defense recommends bases to be eliminated to a bipartisan, congressionally approved panel of experts. Those experts evaluate the programs recommended by the secretary and deliver to Congress their findings for which programs should be terminated. The whole report is then put to an up-or-down vote in Congress and either rejected or implemented in full.

A similar process should be adopted for weapons systems — we'll call it a "weapons BRAC." Instituting such a process would produce several benefits. First, it would provide the right incentive for Congress to fund systems that military and national security experts say the country needs, instead of pet projects favored by influential members of Congress.

A weapons BRAC would also increase pressure on defense contractors to provide more accurate cost estimates, meet project deadlines and achieve performance standards, lest they be recommended for termination in the commission's report.

The weapons BRAC should also follow the model of the original base-closure program and provide economic assistance to local communities affected by program terminations to help them retool for other industries. These could be budget-neutral assistance such as low-interest government loans.

The weapons BRAC is not a novel idea. In fact, President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission recommended such a plan. Also, the idea is not without flaws. The current BRAC process isn't completely immune from politicization, and a weapons BRAC wouldn't be either. But it would be significantly better than the current system.

As Mr. Gates likes to say, defense cuts need to be based on strategy, not math. By beginning to fix the perverse incentives that prompt Congress to keep resuscitating projects that should have been killed long ago, a weapons BRAC will start with the strategy — the criteria by which commission experts would judge the value of weapons systems — and help bring the math in line by ending those programs whose costs are disproportionate to their benefits for American security.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Jacob Stokes is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.