April 24, 2023

A Cut Too Deep? Benefits in the Spotlight as Defense Cuts Loom

We don’t often hear arguments in favor of cutting the defense budget, especially from the defense community itself. We don’t usually hear such arguments from conservatives either. When we do come across such rhetoric, it tends to focus on ultra-costly advanced weapons systems and extra ships or extra fighter jets or extra engines for fighter jets that we may or may not need. And the rhetoric tends to come from more liberal elements outside of the defense establishment.

However, we have recently begun to hear calls for spending slowdowns and rollbacks coming from within the Pentagon itself as well as from conservatives outside of the Pentagon. This shift rhetorical sourcing is perhaps significant, and signals the new direction of things to come both defense-wise and budget-wise.

For several years, former Defense Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta called for the elimination of wasteful defense spending, such as the funding of an extra or “alternate” engine for the new Joint Strike Fighter. No other military aircraft has an “alternate” engine and the extra engine program was largely seen as simply an employment welfare program for the home districts of many members of congress. The President even threatened to veto the entire defense authorization bill if Congress included a provision to force the Pentagon to spend an extra half-billion dollars on the project.

More recently, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has issued warnings that Congress and the Administration must get rising defense personnel costs under control or we risk seeing readiness capabilities compromised. This call represents a new development, as personnel-related accounts, including retiree pay and benefits and DOD-subsidized perks such as commissaries and post/base exchanges, have traditionally been off-limits to even discussion of cuts lest said talkers be accused of not supporting “the troops.”

Now, talk of measured and smart cuts to even the sacrosanct personnel-related accounts is brewing. This weekend, two Washington Post articles came out on the same day, June 1st, and by the same writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about the growing Concerned Veterans of America group/movement and about members of the Defense Business Board questioning the continued business rationality of the Defense Commissary Agency.

Both articles are good reads (the first a much quicker one that the second), but the article on the commissary battles is a particularly fascinating and in-depth piece that presents an historical narrative on par with its argument in favor of shuttering most domestic commissaries and exchanges. Other implications in this lengthy piece, however, are perhaps less viable from the moral standpoint, such as the seeming suggestion both enlisted and officer pay is already generous enough.

No matter what one things should be cut, it has become clear that government spending cuts are needed and inevitable. It is also becoming a given that cuts to the defense budget are on the way, although which accounts should be cut and which should be saved remain up for debate. These articles are forwarding that debate, so we should expect more from the Post, Rajiv, CVA, and, of course, DefensePolicy.org on this evolving hot button topic.

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