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Rewriting the 2011 Defense Budget: Winslow Wheeler

Earlier in the year, as part of the article that details the 2011 Department of Defense Authorization Bill, which was signed into law Jan. 7, 2011, we asked a select group of people how they would rewrite the current defense budget, with an eye toward the cuts everyone expects are just over the horizon. While we didn’t immediately run these sidebars with the online reprint of the budget piece, we are sharing them now because of their interest in light of current events and future budgets.

Author Craig Collins’ Note: Wheeler, a former Senate staffer for both Democratic and Republican senators, as well as for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, helped author a letter that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, presented to other commission members on May 18, 2010. The text of the letter can be read here.

Winslow Wheeler: The Coburn letter says, basically, freeze the budget until you can pass a truly comprehensive and meaningful audit.

I’m all for changing some programs and canceling others, and I regard personnel costs every bit as out-of-control as hardware costs. But you can’t start to fix these problems until you start understanding them better, and the first step to understanding them better is to address the fact that the Department of Defense – as the Government Accountability Office has reported for decades – does not know how it spends its money. It is literally “unauditable.” It doesn’t know how many contractors it has, who works for them, or what those people are doing. They don’t have a system that provides a reliable cost estimate of weapons past, present, or future.

If you spin out a budget freeze for the next 10 years, that means basically a trillion dollars less for defense than Secretary [Robert] Gates has laid out … the Gates plan is to increase the defense budget both with inflation and 1 percent real growth annually, and what that means over 10 years is literally a 33 percent increase, from $550 billion to more than $700 billion.

I’m not at all intimidated by the idea that our defense infrastructure should be smaller, but [it] also should be a lot more effective. And I’m not talking about a smaller number of high tech, ultra-complicated weapons. I’m talking about weapons that we can afford and that are designed based on lessons of combat, rather than on the ambitions of technologists and defense contractors. We pay too much attention to what some of the technological bureaucracies and the Pentagon want, things like stealth capabilities that drive up the cost of an airplane incredibly. We pay attention to ideas from contractors that complexify the weapon and don’t bring any combat benefit. And we treat like the plague ideas such as real competitions between prototypes of combat-ready systems. We do almost everything wrong. And it’s not just a question of setting more modest requirements. It’s a question of, in a Spartan matter, paying attention to the lessons of combat rather than all the vested interests out there.

This text first appeared in The Year in Defense, 2010 Review, Winter 2011 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...