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Dear Mr. President, about your defense budget…

COMMENTARY | January 29, 2009

Military spending is taking us to the poor house, writes George Wilson in an open letter to President Obama. 'No politician wants to look weak on national defense. But cutting fat and insisting on accountability for cost overruns on weapons aren't signs of weakness.'

By George C. Wilson

The military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about in his farewell speech to the nation 48 years ago this month is now taking us to the poor house in Cadillacs that have little, if anything, to do with fighting the here-and-now threat of terrorism.

Your Defense secretary, Robert Gates, said as much several times while working for former President George W. Bush but didn’t cancel anything big. It’s time, Mr. President, to use your awesome powers of persuasion to convince the American people and their hired hands in Congress that we’ll never get out of this recession, or depression, unless the Pentagon is forced to join your crusade to cut costs.

Far too many generals, admirals, senators and repre­sentatives have fallen in love with these luxury weapons. The politicians who oversee Pentagon spending no lon­ger care what these weapons cost as long as jobs back home are attached to them. The way Congress oversees the Pentagon “has certainly become dysfunctional,” House Appropriations Chairman David Obey told me. “Congress instead of being the watchdog is the dog that has to be watched.”

The defense agenda you put on the White House Web site shortly after your inauguration, Mr. President, was hardly comforting to taxpayers looking to get more bang for their bucks. With the possible exception of missile defense, your posted agenda signals more, more, more. More Army and Marine troops: 65,000 more for the Army, 27,000 more for the Marines; “greater investment” in manned and unmanned aircraft; “recapitalize our naval forces;” counter “possible threats to U. S. space assets, modern­ize the National Guard and reserves.” Where was the call for the Defense Department to make cuts to help pull the nation out of the recession? A long list of fallen dictators armed to the teeth testifies to the reality that national strength depends more on the economy than on planes, tanks and guns.

Sure, I realize no politician, including you, wants to look weak on national defense. But cutting fat out of the military budget and insisting on accountability for cost overruns on weapons are not signs of weakness.

Your reviewers of major weapons will not have to look hard to find waste and mismatches between the weapons the Pentagon is buying and the threats America faces.

The Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Reports are one place for them to look, while the high stack of GAO reports docu­menting how military procurement is wildly out of control is another.

The cost of major weapons has skyrocketed so high that no mili­tary service, despite Bush’s record peacetime defense budgets, can af­ford to buy enough of them to cover the world’s hotspots. No Cadillac of a weapon, no matter how fancy, can be in two places at once.

A new book, America’s Defense Meltdown published by the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Informa­tion (available online in PDF), includes a chapter by long-time Pentagon executive Thomas Christie, who spent decades in the sand fighting the procurement bull.

“The overall decision process is broken and in need of far reaching, even radical, remedial actions,” writes Chris­tie, who worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations. The basic problem is that contractors and defense executives underestimate what a weapon on the drawing board will cost and overestimate how much money the Pentagon will have to pay for it, the veteran analyst says.

Please insist, Mr. President, that your reviewers zero in on the costs of the Cadillacs and ask on your behalf how they would combat the most likely threats facing our country. Also, it would impose immediate accountability and inspire reform if you told the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps that their procurement budgets will be cut by the amount of their cost overruns on weapons. No more hitting the spare parts budget to make up for the overruns.

Among the many Cadillacs worth challenging are these:

• Army Future Combat Systems. The Pentagon esti­mates in its latest SAR that 15 systems in the Army pro­gram will cost $159.3 billion, or $10.6 billion for each sys­tem. The FCS has all kinds of problems.

• Air Force F-22 fighter. In another example of a mis­match, the F-22 has not been deployed to fight terrorists. The Pentagon’s own price tag for this plane, designed to take on the now-defunct Warsaw Pact air forces, stands at $351 million a copy, according to the Pentagon’s SAR figures, which include research and development costs.

• Navy Littoral Combat Ship. Can you believe, Mr. Presi­dent, the cost of this supposedly simple ship for brown-water operations is now priced at $1.4 billion each?

• Marine V-22 Osprey. Several Defense secretaries tried to cancel this $118 million aerial taxi cab but got rolled by Congress. Why keep buying such an expensive limo?

CBO calculates the cost of national defense, including nuclear bomb-making by the Energy Department, has climbed to $600 billion this fiscal year not counting the second supplemental of about $70 billion on the way. That total of $672 billion, Mr. President, that works out to spending almost $77 million an hour for our protection.

There is an old saying in the mili­tary that the commander who tries to be strong everywhere is weak ev­erywhere. The numbers are shouting out, Mr. President: “Houston, we have a problem.”

This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDailyAM.

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