Tom Coburn’s newest book, the Debt Bomb, has recently been published. In that book, Coburn suggests many useful fiscal reforms and savings… except when it comes to defense spending.
Coburn, who is an anti-defense libertarian and not a conservative, is an ardent opponent of defense spending per se, and in his drive to deeply cut (and thus gut) America’s defense, he’s made up a litany of blatant lies that he wrote into Chapter 13 of his book, wrongly titled Defense: Peace Through Strength Through Streamlining.
The title is misleading because what Coburn actually advocates is not peace through strength, but peace through weakness, and the spending cuts he advocates go far beyond streamlining. He advocates massive cuts to actual military capabilities. He calls on Congress to implement the disastrous defense cuts proposals he has made in his ridiculous “Back to Black” plan. To reiterate:
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 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, leaving the USMC with far fewer V-22s that they believe they need, and not having the V-22 Osprey as an option for the USAF’s CSARX competition or the Navy’s Carrier Onboard Delivery Aircraft Replacement plan. 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 R&D 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 R&D spending to a paltry $58.0 bn and keep it there, even though that is LESS than what was invested during the Reagan era.
Furthermore, Coburn claims (in the “What to cut from defense” subchapter) that his B2B defense cuts proposals are not just prudent but “necessary”. No, they are not. They would actually be deeply damaging, as they deeply weaken America’s defense and thus imperil national security. Furthermore, as the RSC, the Heritage Foundation, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul have shown, it is possible to balance the federal budget WITHOUT significant defense cuts (even while Rand Paul, like me, proposes to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan quickly).
Furthermore, Coburn opens this chapter of his book with a selective quotation from President Eisenhower’s farewell address and falsely claims that Ike’s worst fears about the “military-industrial complex” have realized. No, they haven’t. Not even close. While the defense industry surely does a lot of lobbying on Capitol Hill and in the DOD, they have abysmally failed to prevail in the vast majority of cases, as evidenced by all the defense cuts (including the closure of over 50 weapon programs) since President Obama took office.
If the military-industrial complex exists and is so powerful, how come could it not even defend save any of those 50 weapon programs from termination?
Coburn claims that defense spending is a sacred cow. He writes:
“Of all the sacred cows that need to be tipped in Washington, defense spending is the biggest and the most stubborn.”
But the truth is that defense spending is NOT, and has never been, a sacred cow. Defense spending was deeply cut during the late 1940s, the 1950s, the 1970s (throughout the entire decade), and the 1990s, and has now been slated for $1.087 TRILLION dollar cuts over the next decade ($487 bn plus $600 bn through sequestration); on top of that, GWOT (OCO) spending is being cut annually and is set to zero out by FY2016, after the last US troops leave Afghanistan. Any claim that the DOD has ever been, or currently is, a “sacred cow” is a blatant lie.
Coburn acknowledges that
“First, it is one of the few legitimate Constitutional roles of the federal government. Also, peace through strength is not a mere slogan but a reality of life. Maintaining a strong national defense is vital to our national security. Our strength is our best deterrent. Without it, our economy, freedoms, and liberty are all placed at risk.”
“Knowing what to keep and what to cut in the defense budget is our first responsibility as elected officials. Thinking critically about defense is your responsibility as well.”
That is well said, but Coburn’s actual policy proposals are totally inconsistent with these principles that he CLAIMS he professes. On the one hand, he admits that a strong defense is necessary, but on the other, he advocates deep defense spending cuts, including draconian cuts to actual military capabilities and arsenals such as the ICBM fleet.
Coburn then commends the ignorant, biased, anti-defense hack Chris Edwards of the CATO Institute for bashing the F-22 program as a parochial project, and commends its cancellation, but the F-22 was NOT the parochial pork project Edwards and Coburn portray it to be. It was a NEEDED 5th generation fighterplane program which was WRONGLY cancelled by the Obama Administration, with Congressional consent, in FY2010. Now the future of the entire US fighterplane fleet relies on a single, troubled program – the F-35 – while Russia and China are testing their stealthy 5th generation Raptor-like fighterplanes.
Coburn also decries the former second engine for the F-35 as a pork project, yet it was actually a necessary program which was sustaining competition in the F-35 program. By killing it, the Congress gave Pratt&Whitney a monopoly on F-35 engines and forced three American military services as well as many foreign countries to rely on a single engine type. That was a reckless decision, yet Coburn lauds it.
Coburn furthermore complains that
“Congress has a rich history of ordering ships and planes our generals did not ask for and do not need.”
But the generals are hardly infallible, and per the Constitution, it is the CONGRESS, not the generals, who is supposed to decide what weapons the military needs and in what quantities. The Constitution vests the prerogatives “to provide for the common defense”, “to raise and support Armies”, and “to provide and maintain a Navy”, and to build military facilities SOLELY in the Congress. Deciding what weapons the military needs and in what quantities is exclusively for the Congress to make, not for the generals, the SECDEF, or the President. Although, to be fair, some of the earmarks he mentions were indeed irresponsible and harmful for the troops (such as the polyester clothing inserted by Congressman David Wu).
In the last 20 years, the generals, forced by successive Administrations to toe their propaganda lines and understate real military requirements, have usually testified (under White House pressure) in favor of ever fewer ships, planes, ground vehicles, and other weapons. So their testimony is not credible.
While on this subject, it’s worth noting that his own B2B plan proposes to cut many military capabilities that the generals deem necessary and worth protecting from cuts, including many procurement programs the generals deem necessary (including 2 variants of the F-35 and the V-22).
Moreover, earmarks constitute only a tiny part of the defense budget and the total federal budget, and are currently banned due to a moratorium. It is, however, only a moratorium, and needs to become a permanent, total earmark ban.
Calling us, opponents of deep defense cuts, “defenders of the status quo”, he calls defense spending’s tiny share of GDP a “misleading” figure. But I am not a defender of the status quo, merely an opponent of defense cuts (especially deep ones), i.e. of cuts to MILITARY CAPABILITIES and needed programs. I do not oppose DOD reforms; I’m actually the author of the largest DOD reform proposals package ever devised. Coburn also falsely claims that the nonwar (core) defense budget is larger today than it was during the height of the 1980s.
The current core defense budget is $531 bn. The FY2010 budget was $534 bn. The budgets for FY1987, FY1988, and FY1989 were, respectively: $606.35 bn, $574.23 bn, and $585.60 bn. So from FY1987 to FY1989, defense spending was MUCH HIGHER than it is now.
Coburn decries the fact that despite defense spending growth, the military is not stronger than it was in 2001 and is significantly smaller than in the 1940s or the rest of the Cold War. But the deep defense spending, force structure, and procurement cuts he advocates would make the problem much worse.
He also claims that “the growing cost of military hardware has been a key driver of our debt”, but that is not true. Although many weapon programs have suffered serious cost overruns, their cost (and even total military spending) has NOT been a key driver of America’s public debt. The military budget amounts to just 19% of total federal spending and accounts for only a tiny minority (less than 10%) of the spending growth that has occurred since FY2001.
The savings he proposes besides acquisition reform, while laudable and worth pursuing, would save taxpayers only $15.9 bn per year (or, including eliminating fraudulent Agent Orange compensation, $20.12 bn per year) – a tiny share of the over $100 bn worth of annual defense spending cuts his B2B plan calls for and the amount that the sequester would cut out of defense.
Coburn then cites a lobbyist (!) for Americans for Tax Reform as a credible source. The lobbyist falsely claims that the sequester would cut only $500 bn over 10 years (in reality, it would cut at least $550 bn over a decade, IN ADDITION TO the $487 bn cuts already ordered by the first tier of the BCA). The lobbyist, while admitting that sequestration would cut the core defense budget by $140 bn n FY2013 alone, ridiculously claims that this is
“hardly a huge pill to swallow, ESPECIALLY since the bill doesn’t include limits on supplemental spending. Who’s to say the 050 cut doesn’t just show up in additional supplemental spending? Something to ponder for conservatives who are concerned about ‘deep’ defense cuts.”
These claims are blatant lies. Firstly, a $140 bn annual cut (which would be deeper than even I previously thought) WOULD be a huge pill to swallow. It would amount to more than 26% of the DOD’s core budget for FY2012 ($531 bn) and its requested FY2013 budget ($525 bn). Such cuts would completely gut the military. That is inevitable. They would mean drastic reductions in end-strength, the military’s size, compensation for the troops, maintenance and training funding, and modernization (i.e. very few purchases of new equipment, at a time when the vast majority of the military’s gear is old, obsolete, and worn out and needs to be replaced). There isn’t that much waste in the defense budget. (BTW, ATR’s lobbyists waste more money every year than the DOD does.)
Why won’t these items show up in the supplemental? Because 1) the White House has explicitly prohibited the DOD from doing so; 2) to do that, they would have to increase the ANNUAL supplemental request by $140 bn per year, up from $88.5 bn requested for FY2013, and not even the stupidest Congressman will buy that trick; 3) supplemental funding is shrinking annually and is slated to shrink further every year (to $88.5 bn in FY2013 and $44.5 bn in FY2014) and eventually zero out when the last American troops leave Afghanistan. That shrinkage has been ongoing and will continue regardless of whether sequestration proceeds. Any claim that the DOD will simply move sequestered budget items worth $140 bn PER YEAR to the supplemental is a blatant lie.
That’s something to ponder for those callously unconcerned about the sequester’s deep defense cuts and those who make light of these cuts. But of course, ATR lobbyists are not on Capitol Hill to tell the truth; they are there to lie.
Coburn buys into ATR’s lies, and falsely claims that “regardless of how deep the defense cuts may look, they will never materialize.” This is a blatant lie, as proven above; the supplemental cannot be used to avoid sequestration, and the sequester itself will kick in on Jan. 1st absent Congressional action.
Furthermore, while Coburn admits that sequestration is bad because it would cut everything equally deeply – the necessities along with waste – he falsely claims that “the dollar goal of sequestration (…) was not the problem, just the method.”
He’s completely wrong, however. It’s not just sequestration’s METHOD of cuts that’s bad, it’s the DOLLAR GOAL as well. A $100 bn or $140 bn ANNUAL cut of defense spending would be deeply damaging for America’s defense, as it would cut waste ALONG WITH actual military capabilities and crucial modernization programs. That is an inevitable consequence of such deep budget cuts to an arbitrary figure. There isn’t that much waste even in the DOD. Not even close. As proven by Coburn’s failure to find more than a paltry $20.12 bn in efficiencies. Even under a different method, if required to cut its budget by $100 bn per year, the DOD would HAVE to dramatically cut military capabilities and thus weaken America’s defense. (For specifics, see here
Coburn claims that “even with sequestration, defense spending would still increase by 16% over the next ten years compared to 23% without sequestration.” That is a blatant lie. Under sequestration, defense spending will grow by only a few points over this year’s level, and only at the end of the decade. At the start of the decade, it will be dramatically cut, and from then on, will be growing very slowly, not reaching FY2011/2012 levels until FY2019 at the earliest, as proven by the first graph (produced by the CBO) below. As the second graph below (from the Bipartisan Policy Center) shows, under sequestration, defense would be cut to a record low, not seen since before WW2.
Coburn claims that “streamlining will strengthen, not weaken, our national security”, but the massive, reckless defense cuts he advocates (predominantly cuts to military capabilities and modernization, not to DOD waste) would gravely WEAKEN America’s defense and jeopardize national security. He ends this chapter by quoting a proverb saying that all great powers destroy themselves from within, but defense/military spending is not destroying America at all. It constitutes just 19% of the federal budget, a small share. It is not responsible for America’s fiscal woes.
In short, this entire chapter of Coburn’s book is completely worthless and ridiculous. It’s a litany of blatant lies. Conservatives should not waste their money buying that book.
 The 2006 QDR, as released by the DOD.
 The 2010 QDR, as released by the DOD. The author will send you a copy of both Reviews at request.
 Mark Gunzinger, Sustaining America’s Advantage in Long-Range Strike, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010.