Skip to content

Spend Smarter, Not More | Commentary

This week, the government will run out of expenditure authority, but Congress is working to advance actual spending bills before the Wednesday deadline.

Our nation needs an open dialogue about government spending, especially on U.S. military programs that damage our national security by ballooning the national debt.

In January of 2012, President Obama released a new National Military Strategy designed to implement the revised 2010 National Security Strategy, both of which we believe are fundamentally sound. The 2010 NSS, in a broad redefinition of national security, stated that the United States must revitalize its economic, moral and innovative strength if we are to continue in a world leadership role.

The revised military strategy cited the country’s dire budget problems that necessitate more modest foreign policy goals and made a clear break in emphasizing working with the international community, over unilateral action, to seek global stability. While it did stress the need to maintain military superiority, it declared that we must be more restrained in employing military force. As a result, we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces, rid ourselves of outdated Cold War-era military systems and invest in the capabilities we need for the future with smaller defense budgets.

Pentagon spending is slated for a trillion-dollar belt-tightening over a decade as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The sequestration provisions for nonsensical across-the-board cuts have already been modified to allow greater flexibility in targeting spending reductions. Before the recent holiday recess, Congress gave the Pentagon a potential two-year sequestration reprieve with the Ryan-Murray budget deal and created the opportunity for a real congressional debate about how the Pentagon spends taxpayer dollars.

Top Pentagon civilian leaders appear dedicated to the task of adjusting to significantly lower military expenditures. In an interview last November, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “We’re challenging every past assumption, every past formula.” Anticipating more reductions, Hagel also described a strategy to build a Pentagon budget that rationally apportions lower levels of spending.

Of course, Hagel will encounter strong opposition from vested interests that will lose resources in the realignment. Lobbyists for defense contractors are bemoaning prospective cuts and decrying them for their negative impact on national security while members of Congress continue to mandate maintaining military facilities and programs in their states and districts.

Battles between and among the armed services for larger pieces of the smaller pie also are inevitable. As vividly reported in a Washington Post article, the Army is grasping for a new mission, one traditionally performed by the Marines, to justify its relevance in the pivot to the Pacific.

As retired military officers, we agree with former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and the 2008 National Intelligence Estimate that our national debt and economic crises are our greatest national security risks. We are confident that our military and civilian leaders have learned the lesson of the recent past that the employment of large-scale ground troops to conduct full spectrum counterinsurgency operations successfully is mission impossible. Congress can reinforce that lesson with the power of the purse.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost more than $1.5 trillion in borrowed money — about 10 percent of the national debt. With the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the nation is positioned to curtail military expenditures significantly, just as we have done following every other war since World War II.

Despite a sharply divided Congress, the national security of the United States must not be a victim of partisan politics. Congress will attempt to pass spending bills before the Wednesday deadline. While these bills are debated, Congress must seriously consider the optimum investment of scarce American tax dollars. As America and our allies face the security threats of the 21st century, we need to ensure that spending for defense programs meets today’s security needs, not 20th-century protocols or special interests.

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard Jr. is chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and former president of National Defense University. Retired Brig. Gen. John Johns is a member of Council for a Livable World’s board of directors and professor emeritus of the National Defense University, where he taught National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy for 14 years.

Recent Stories

‘All hands on deck’: Trump vows to help GOP in House races

House Admin Republicans subpoena Biden officials over voting access push

Supreme Court rejects man’s bid to trademark ‘Trump too small’

Supreme Court rejects challenge to medication abortion drug

Capitol Ink | Contempt of Justice

Post-Dobbs, maternal mental health care is even more complicated