What's the difference between a Republican and a Democrat when it comes to defense spending? I posed this question to longtime defense analyst Winslow Wheeler, who may be the only person to have ever worked as a personal staffer for a Republican and Democrat in Congress... at the same time.
"Republicans, with only the rarest exceptions, busy themselves pretending that more money means better defense, and that anyone urging budget restraint is worse than a fool," Wheeler told me. And Democrats? "[They] have fallen for the gag, and cower in the corner, thinking that going along with more money for the Pentagon will protect them from further political slander."
Wheeler argues that the key to successful military reform is not the old adage that more money equals better defense — instead, it's about spending smarter. And there's no better time to advocate for better defense spending than when the House and Senate are fighting tooth and nail over the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The Senate Committee on Armed Services passed this major defense bill last week, and it now must be approved by the entire Senate in the coming months. (The Senate bill is also up against a competing version that has been passed by the House.)
The Navy may be willing to go down with the ship, but it doesn't need to bring taxpayer dollars with it.
When it comes to the NDAA, some legislators are starting to sound like they're borrowing a line from the band Daft Punk. According to them, every extra dollar spent on defense makes the U.S. military "harder, better, faster, stronger." In actuality, though, there are a couple of glaring examples in which this isn't the case. Here are two programs in particular that are costing taxpayers billions of dollars — without giving them much in the way of defense.
The multibillion-dollar nuclear money pit... that has no purpose
The Department of Energy is doing its best to pitch taxpayers a nuclear project that experts are calling unnecessary — and whose estimated cost has climbed from $375 million to $3.7 billion to $5.9 billion. The idea behind the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) in Los Alamos is to increase production of plutonium pits, which are needed to make nuclear weapons.
Throwing money into a bottomless pit for nuclear weapons production... What is this, the Cold War? Is the Soviet Union trying to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, and ice cream? Last I checked, it's 2012, and we're trying to rein in defense spending. Plenty of experts agree: There is no need to actually increase pit production.
"Pit production enabled by CMRR-NF is not needed to maintain U.S. nuclear weapons for decades to come" writes former Sandia Laboratories Vice President Bob Peurifoy. "As a result, the Nuclear Facility might just sit there with nothing to do."
Not only is CMRR-NF unnecessary; there's also evidence that the project won't create jobs, undermines America's commitment to reduce its nuclear arsenal through the new START treaty, and could be vulnerable to earthquakes.
President Obama has already proposed delaying funding for CMRR-NF for five years, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have zeroed out funding for CMRR-NF in their FY 2013 bills, and perhaps most importantly, even the Pentagon hasn't bothered actually allocating funds for the project.
But we still have this boondoggle on our hands, thanks to lawmakers like Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who has attempted to appropriate $160 million back to the facility; failing to acknowledge the growing body of evidence that the facility isn't needed. We don't yet know the Senate's decision on CMRR-NF funding, but according to insiders close to the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), it doesn't look like funding will be cut.
The pirate-catching ship that can't keep its engines running
The Navy is trying to sell taxpayers a $358 million "combat" ship — Lockheed Martin's Littoral Combat Ship — but the vessel is corroding, has engine problems, and doesn't actually engage in combat. The Navy also plans to buy a similar, cheaper version of the ship that has less debilitating problems. Deciding which ship to buy should be obvious — so why is the Navy asking taxpayers to pony up cash for both? Good question. That's exactly what POGO is asking.
"[Lockheed's] ship is like a Swiss army knife: It does a lot of things, it just doesn't do any of them well," POGO National Security Investigator Ben Freeman, who has worked with whistleblowers close to the program, said at the CATO Institute last week.
The Littoral Combat Ship is intended to operate close to shore, with the capacity to bust drug traffickers and modern pirates, and also clear mines and find submarines. Unfortunately, it doesn't carry out its functions very capably. In one instance, the ship was looking for drug smugglers when the electricity on the entire ship went out, leaving it dangerously adrift.
The Navy has vehemently defended the ship. At the CATO Institute, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work tried to argue that "you never, ever buy every ship to go into full battle." But the Littoral Combat Ship is designed for surface combat; it's just not living up to its promise. (Check out POGO's full rebuttal to the Navy here.)
The good news is tides are starting to turn against Lockheed's troubled ship. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a full investigation into the ship's problems. Hopefully, the Senate will get on board as well.
Dropping the Lockheed Martin's vessel would save at least $187 million and likely billions more down the line, thanks to reduced operating costs. The Navy may be willing to go down with the ship, but it doesn't need to bring taxpayer dollars with it.
These overpriced programs are just two examples of the kind of defense spending that is hurting taxpayers. It's easy for Republicans and Democrats to scare us into coughing up more money for the military, but we should demand smarter spending. That's the key towards working together for a harder, better, faster, stronger — and safer America.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- How Israel's hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left
- The real lesson of Rick Perry's mug shot
- Why China thinks it could defeat the U.S. in battle
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- What the 'death of the library' means for the future of books
- Welcome to the age of ambivalent feminism
- What you need to know before you support the police in Ferguson
- How Republicans could win back Silicon Valley
- Making officers more diverse isn't enough to stop police violence
Subscribe to the Week