The Tea Party Debt Commission and Sen. Coburn’s defense cuts proposals


The Tea Party Debt Commission unveiled its deficit reduction plan yesterday. It’s a huge piece of work, calling for a $9.7 trillion dollar deficit reduction over a decade, i.e. $970 bn per year. Their plan is great, except one part: the one that relates to defense, which is troubling.

The good news about it is that it starts with a clear recognition that

If there is one function of government clearly addressed and permitted in the U.S. Constitution, it isdefense. Defense protects all of the other functions of government, and our freedoms.

Still, as the largest military establishment on earth, America’s defense community can afford to contributeto debt reduction. We approach this challenge with the following basic goals:

– Preserve weapons systems and personnel investments that our commanders, after careful review,have deemed vital to the nation’s security.
– Cut out all obviously wasteful spending, such as the duplicative purchases of Pentagon supplies.
– Eliminate or move from the Pentagon budget all programs that have nothing to do with nationaldefense.
– Prefer specific cuts over across-the-board reductions or sequesters. (Avoid a meat-ax approach.)”
The Tea Party Debt Commission also opposes the sequester mechanism and is rightly concerned about the damage it would make to America’s defense:
The Budget Control Act of 2011, which created the Super Committee will impose an automatic across-the- board cut in defense and other spending, to make up for any shortfall in the savings produced by thatCommittee. We are worried that such a sequester, if large, could weaken our defenses, perhaps to adangerously unacceptable level. We should avoid a meat-ax approach. And happily, we can easily do so.
That’s the good news. The bad news is twofold. Firstly, even though military spending accounts for just 17% of America’s total federal budget, they want it to bear 21% of the cost of deficit reduction (i.e. a full 21% of their cuts would come out of the military budget, and it wouldn’t be just the GWOT supplemental).
Secondly, and equally more worringly, instead of doing their own thinking about what the DOD needs and what it doesn’t need, and doing their own research (or asking me to do it🙂 ), they blindly recommend adopting Sen. Coburn’s defense cuts proposals, contained in his Back to Black pamphlet. Now, what is wrong with his proposals, you might ask?
To start with, EVERYTHING.
Firstly, he proposes to cut the core defense budget (not counting the GWOT supplemental) by a whopping $1.006 trillion over a decade, i.e. over $100 bn per year, i.e. almost as much as the sequester would cut. Secondly, many (but not all) of the specific cuts he proposes are unacceptable, because they would significantly damage America’s military. To take a few examples:
1) Cutting spending on the nuclear arsenal and the arsenal of means of delivery by $7.9 bn per year, i.e. $79 bn over a decade, for purely budgetary reasons, by:
a) cutting the nuclear stockpile down to the inadequate levels allowed by the disastrous New START treaty (former SECDEF James Schlesinger deems them “barely adequate”);
b) cutting the ICBM fleet from 500 to 300 missiles (i.e. by a whopping 200 missiles);
c) cutting the SSBN fleet from from 14 to 11 subs;
d) delaying, again, for purely budgetary reasons, the Next Generation Bomber program until the mid-2020s when it hasn’t even been allowed to begin; and
e) maintaining a reserve stockpile of just 1,100 warheads;
f) cutting the strategic bomber fleet to just 40 aircraft compared to the current 96 nuclear-capable B-2s and B-52s and 66 non-nuclear-capable B-1s.
This is the worst of all his proposals by far. The disastrous New START treaty, which does not cover tactical nuclear weapons (in which Russia has overwhelming advantage), ordered the US to cut its nuclear arsenal to already-inadequate levels, so that Russia could keep nuclear parity status with the US. Cutting the US nuclear arsenal down to levels authorized by this treaty is a mistake; cutting it further would be an ever bigger mistake; cutting it by a whopping 200 ICBMs, 3 SSBNs, and hundreds of warheads would be an egregious blunder which would make America much less safe and invite a Russian nuclear first strike.
Coburn also proposes to forego any modernization of the deterrent until the mid-2020s, and then only of the bomber fleet. A requirement for a Next Generation Bomber Type is real and was officially acknowledged by the DOD 5 years ago, in 2006, in that year’s Quadrennial Defense Review.(1) It was later confirmed by the 2010 QDR.(2) It was subsequently acknowledged by the then leadership of the DOD, including Secretary Gates. Later that year, the CSBA – which Coburn likes to cite as a source – released a report (authored by retired USAF Colonel Mark Gunzinger, who has participated in all defense reviews to date) stating that an NGB is an urgent requirement which must be met by 2018 at the latest and that consequently, the NGB program must not be delayed any longer. (3)
In short, the nuclear triad is the last part of the military that should be cut. And for all of these draconian cuts, Coburn would “save” only $7.9 bn per year, whereas my proposals of cutting the administration budgets of the DOD alone would save taxpayers well over $10 bn per year.
2) End the purchases of V-22 Ospreys at no more than 288 aircraft, thus allowing some Marine H-46s to retire unreplaced, and not having the V-22 Osprey as an option for the USAF’s CSARX competition. Buy MH-60s instead. The savings: a meagre $0.6 bn a year, or $6 bn over a decade.
This proposal is just as dumb as the first one. Barring the USAF’s bombers (B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s), there isn’t a single weapon type in America’s inventory that is as combat-proven and as battle-tested as the V-22, which has been widely used in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It is more survivable, and can fly much farther and faster, than any other rotorcraft in history, and can fly to places where other rotorcraft cannot. When an F-15E was downed in Libya earlier this year, it was a V-22 that rescued its crew. The V-22 is a must-have aircraft type. Orders for it should be increased, not cut. And contrary to Coburn’s claim, it costs only a little more than an MH-60: $67 mn for a V-22 vs at least $44 mn for an MH-60.
3) Cancel the Marine (STOVL) and Navy (CATOBAR) variants of the F-35, buy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets instead. The saving: a paltry $700 mn per year, i.e. $7 bn per decade.
This proposal, frequently stated by those who wish to cut the defense budget deeply, is fundamentally flawed, because it’s based on two wrong assumptions: a) a Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing variant is not needed; b) the Super Bug is interchangeable with the F-35.
There is clearly a requirement for a STOVL variant, as confirmed by USMC Commandant Gen. James Amos, who is himself a Naval Aviator. He knows the F-35B better than anyone. Coburn’s assumption that a STOVL variant won’t be needed is based on wishful thinking. As for the second assumption: no, the Super Bug is not an alternative to, nor even substitute for, the F-35. It’s basically a redo of the F/A-18 Hornet, a plane that first flew in the 1970s. It is not stealthy, has a much shorter range compared to the F-35C, and a higher maintenance cost. It can operate only in benign, uncontested airspace.
4) Retire the USS George Washington early, cutting the carrier fleet permanently to 10 and cutting the number of carrier air wings from 10 to 9. This would save a paltry $600 mn per year, i.e. $6 bn over a decade, at a large cost to America’s defense.
This would also be reckless. Contrary to Coburn’s claim, during the Cold War, the USN needed – and always had – at least 15 carriers. Throughout the Cold War, the Navy had no fewer than 15 carriers. The flattop fleet was not cut until after the Cold War. In 2007, the Congress reluctantly agreed to cut the carrier fleet from 12 to 11, while simoultaneously writing a well-grounded requirement for at least 11 carriers into law. Last year, the Congress again reluctantly agreed to waive that requirement – but only for two years, from 2013 to 2015, until the USS Gerald R. Ford is commissioned. As studies by the Heritage Foundation have repeatedly shown, the Navy needs no fewer than 11 carriers at any one time. Cutting the carrier fleet and the number of CAWs would be reckless.
5) Cancelling the Precision Tracking Space Satellite (PTSS) program of the Missile Defense Agency.
This program is necessary to create a constellation of 6 dedicated satellites tracking ballistic missiles, a capability that none of America’s current satellites offer.
6) Cutting the total number of troops deployed in Europe and Asia to just 45,000.
While Europe can certainly defend itself on its own, having only one plausible enemy (Russia), this cannot be said of America’s Asian allies. The US can afford to withdraw troops from Europe but not Asia, where any American drawdown would be viewed as a sign of weakness and disengagement, which Sec. Panetta and President Obama have both recently tried to prevent, trying to assure America’s Asian allies that this will not happen.
7) Using the $100 bn savings that Secretary Gates for deficit reduction, not for military modernization as Sec. Gates wanted and the Services – which worked hard to find these savings – were promised by Gates, President Obama, and the Congress.
These savings were to be used for a number of military modernization programs, including purchases of additional ships, modernization of the Army’s combat vehicles, and the forementioned Next Generation Bomber program. Taking that money away from them and using it to pay the bills for a deficit caused exclusively by runaway civilian spending would not just be dumb, it would be an act of heinous betrayal.
(8) Delay the Ground Combat Vehicle for purely budgetary reasons. The saving: a paltry $700 mn per year, i.e. $7 bn per decade.
For purely budgetary reasons. Do I need to say more?
9) End the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program without replacement, not with a replacement as Sec. Gates proposed.
The decision of Sec. Gates (whom Coburn quotes selectively) to cancel the over-budget, delayed Marine amphibious truck vehicle known as the EFV was the right one. However, as a replacement, Gates proposed starting a new, less complex, less costly amphib program that is scheduled to produce the first amphibious trucks in 2014, so that Gen. Amos can ride in them before he retires in late 2014. As both Gates and Amos have stated, there is a clear requirement for such a vehicle. The USMC’s obsolete, Vietnam War era AAVs must be replaced. Coburn proposes not to replace them.
1o) Cutting DOD weapon RnD spending by 10% in FY2012, then by another 10% in FY2013, and then freezing it for a further 8 fiscal years.
Again, this is motivated purely by budgetary concerns, not military ones. Coburn claims that from FY1981 to FY1988, the DOD received, in constant dollars, $407 bn, and he claims that is only $51 bn per year. He’s wrong, and apparently can’t do simple math. $407 bn divided by seven is $58.142857 bn, i.e. ca. $58.143 bn. He proposes to cut RnD spending to a paltry $58.0 bn and keep it there, even though that is LESS than what was invested during the Reagan era.
On top of that, Coburn proposes to eliminate or cut many expenditures that are outright wasteful or excessive, but rather than reinvest at least a part of them in military modernization, he proposes to use them to pay for a deficit caused exclusively by runaway civilian spending.
References:
(1) The 2006 QDR, as released by the DOD.
(2) The 2010 QDR, as released by the DOD. The author will send you a copy of both Reviews at request.
(3) Mark Gunzinger, Sustaining America’s Advantage in Long-Range Strike, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010.

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