May 9, 2010

The Pentagon's Skewed Spending Priorities

On Saturday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that he was taking aim at excessive military spending, stating that the Pentagon is wasting money it should no longer expect to receive:
The attacks of September 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade. Military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.
Secretary Gates, who also served in the administration of President George W. Bush, has already canceled or cut back a number of weapons programs with the goal of saving $330 billion over the long term.  He is now attempting to shift two to three percent of total defense spending from military and civilian bureaucracies to support and combat functions.  Given that there is widespread concerns about the budget deficit, this seems sensible, but there are already worrying signs that priorities among the top ranks of the military may not be aligned as we might wish:
The Pentagon, not usually known for its frugality, is pleading with Congress to stop spending so much money on the troops

Through nine years of war, service members have seen a healthy rise in pay and benefits, with most of them now better compensated than workers in the private sector with similar experience and education levels.

Congress has been so determined to take care of troops and their families that for several years running it has overruled the Pentagon and mandated more-generous pay raises than requested by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. It has also rejected attempts by the Pentagon to slow soaring health-care costs -- which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said are "eating us alive" -- by raising co-pays or premiums.

Now, Pentagon officials see fiscal calamity.

In the midst of two long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials are increasingly worried that the government's generosity is unsustainable and that it will leave them with less money to buy weapons and take care of equipment.
Just for clairty's sake: the United States spends more on its military might than the next fourteen nations combined.  There is certainly room for cuts, but focusing on human resource costs misses the mark.  In 2011, for example, total defense spending is budgeted to be $711 billion dollars, with health care costs making up only 7% of that number.  (See zoom-able, high resolution, interactive map below.  Original here.)  By contrast, overall spending as a percentage of U.S. GDP for health care is about double that. 

After the scandalous, callous treatment American military personnel have experienced since the U.S. invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq (see here, here and here, for instance), the idea that we need to cut back on expenses associated with compensating and caring for men and women who have been through the wringer of our foreign adventures during the last 9 years is pretty hard to either stomach or support.  Fiscal responsibility in the arena of normally untouchable defense spending would be very welcome indeed, but not at the expense of those who put their lives on the line and suffer the physical, mental and emotional consequences of their duty.   

Hover over the image to see the zoom controls. Click on the full-screen button to view at full size.  Click and drag to navigate the image.

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