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Congress: Find the Savings, Hold the Defense Budget Cuts

Over time you notice Washington DC has a cyclical nature to it. Just look at the sine wave of the U.S. defense budget over time: crest then trough; crest then trough; repeat. Worthy of note however is that our primary competitor the Chinese Communist Party, is on a different trajectory: this month they announced their 28th consecutive year of increased military spending. 

F-22 Hawaiian Raptor flies over Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2019. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
F-22 Hawaiian Raptor flies over Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2019.

Over time you notice Washington DC has a cyclical nature to it. Just look at the sine wave of the U.S. defense budget over time: crest then trough; crest then trough; repeat. Worthy of note however is that our primary competitor the Chinese Communist Party, is on a different trajectory: this month they announced their 28th consecutive year of increased military spending. 

Congress finds itself torn between the twin imperatives to resource defense programs to counter China and the need to reduce annual deficits and total debt to put the economy on a sound path. In that goal, as politicians scrutinize the defense budget to achieve savings and efficiencies, they must ground their expectations in reality

Identifying ways that the Pentagon can save money and reinvest those funds into needed capabilities and capacity is necessary to confront China. But wanton cuts disguised as “caps”, or “hard choices” and tradeoffs are reckless when the U.S. is being challenged by a threat never before encountered. 

Without a doubt, while facing China and economic uncertainty, the U.S. has no funds to spare on capabilities which do little to make the military more lethal and ready. Even though the defense budget is reviewed in great detail annually by Pentagon leaders, the White House and Congress, each brings their own biases to their oversight roles. 

Thus, we recently convened an eclectic group of experts and leaders for a multiday examination of the defense budget with the goal of identifying more modern ways of doing business. Among the group were people of varying interests and backgrounds: Congressional staff, former Pentagon officials, representatives from private industry, and other interested parties. While the headlines parodied the effort as “don’t call it a cut,” it is precisely because not enough dollars in the massive defense budget buy direct military capability that the efforts we did identify should be carefully examined. 

While our group alternated between strategic changes and tactical line items for review, there were a few broad takeaways that emerged from the effort. 

1.  Serious defense reform is often the patient work of many years. While it would be nice if there was an EASY button or a line item to rescind for “fraud, waste, and abuse,” that’s not how it works. Like a good ribeye steak, inefficiency, like fat, is marbled within the budget and across programs, accounts, services and agencies. 

That’s why when seeking reform, a cleaver shouldn’t be taken to the budget. Rather, a scalpel is needed, letting reformers carefully cut and trim where necessary while avoiding wholesale, reckless cuts and closures of offices and agencies. 

2. To effect meaningful change within entrenched defense priorities, coalitions must be built and sustained. These coalitions must span political parties, branches of government and outside advocacy groups in order to raise awareness, pressure lawmakers and show the bipartisan necessity of needed updates to a bureaucracy which has largely operated on autopilot for the last four decades. 

3. Almost without fail, there is an upfront cost to change before any meaningful savings can be reaped years later. Not only does modernization require funds to begin, but many good ideas have a time-phased approach to their implementation (see #1 above). Even killing a weapons program today results in termination costs which likely exceed the one-year cost of the contract.

But upfront costs shouldn’t be an impediment to needed change. It’s better to bite the bullet and take the hit now, rather than continue to waste money, priorities, and time.

4. The more money there is to be harvested for other purposes in the defense budget, the harder that change typically is to achieve politically. Some of the major but unpopular ideas the group reviewed were civil service reform, base closures, elimination of select organizations, and financial and accounting systems modernization. These efforts are often stalled due to parochial interests, unionized workforces, and increasingly a defense budget that favors retirees over active duty personnel and needs. 

Overcoming political barriers requires coalitions and consensus. Building and sustaining these is critical to beating back entrenched interests and altering the status quo. 

5. Not undertaking hard but overdue reforms in the military bureaucracy does not help the troops. Sticking our heads in the proverbial sand does nothing for servicemembers needing quality military housing, defense health care, as well as the overall lethality and readiness of the force. 

It’s unhelpful to those in uniform to continue to avoid reform, which will free up funds for reinvestment in the things our military needs (not more bureaucracy and red tape, but credible combat power). 

These five main takeaways will guide the proposals that our session explored. We are in the process of refining those ideas, adding research, and refining data. Once finished, we aim to publish a short report showing specific ways that the Defense Department and Congress can do what is necessary in this era of great power competition: enact reforms, find efficiencies and reprioritize programs to achieve a greater level of lethality and readiness. There are few surprises in our findings. The hard work was not in identifying areas to modernize the massive US military bureaucracy but it will be in leading a thoughtful, multiyear effort of overdue change.

About the Authors

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @MEaglen. Eaglen is 19FortyFive Conritbuting Editor. 

Thomas Spoehr is a retired Army lieutenant general who serves as the Heritage Foundation’s director for national defense research. While in uniform, he held a number of assignments related to the defense budget, including the Army’s director for Program Analysis and Evaluation; and director, Force Development. He has published extensively on matters of the defense budget, strategy, and reform.



  1. Chris Williams

    March 27, 2023 at 4:01 pm

    We spend a trillion a year on defense while America crumbles and our government debt increased our cost of living by 20% as they get rich devaluing the dollar and our life savings.

    Then they will cut social security by 25% in 2032.

    Some day Americans will stop taking the bait of black vs white and red vs blue and they will unite against the real enemy in DC.

  2. John

    March 27, 2023 at 4:28 pm

    We need thorough analysis of our adversaries, need to formulate strategies and then appropriate funding.
    With Sinorussia likely going to have 15000 deployed nuclear warheads, we will have to increase the size of our nuclear forces while improving missile defense. This will add 100 bill a year in extra nuclear defense spending extrapolating from Cold War one nuclear spending. Remember Russia withdrew from New Start.
    If surface ships cannot survive vis a vis thousands of ASMs, are the Marines Pacific plans dead and does shipyard capacity and money be redirected from carriers and Amphibs to doubling submarine and B-21 production?
    What do Rand studies suggest?
    Medicare plus Medicaid is 2 trillion a year paid by printing money to the tune of a trillion a year.
    Increasing the medicare tax to 10% on everybody would help.
    Defense spending will have to be 5% GDP

  3. HAT451

    March 27, 2023 at 5:23 pm

    The risk of war can be mitigated with a well resourced, trained, and large military. Having that military ready, ready and able to fight and defend, is like us having home insurance, to be able to recover from one of life’s calamities.

    If worst comes to worst, and our military us underfunded and distracted to such an extent that it can not protect, or deter enemy aggression, then in the areas where the American flag ceases to fly there will be no freedom, US government welfare programs, and everyone in those areas left alive, learning new language, like Russian or Chinese.

  4. Gavin Longmuir

    March 27, 2023 at 6:19 pm

    The authors avoid the underlying problem — a de-industrialized financialized US cannot afford the current level of government spending, including military spending. It is not possible to fix military issues without also fixing that bigger problem.

    As for the military, the US Government makes the problems worse by treating countries like Russia & China as enemies. Treat them as enemies, they will behave as enemies. Instead, why not try treating them as fellow occupants of the planet?

    We need to get the US out of NATO, shut down most overseas bases, tell the Ukraine and Taiwan they need to look after themselves, and focus the US military on protecting the US homeland. That includes restoring the US Southern Border to normality.

    Sadly, that won’t happen. Instead, the idiots in charge will drive us into economic collapse when foreigners stop accepting dubious Dollar IOUs in exchange for what we have to import from them. Then when there is no more money, there will be a massive involuntary contraction in the US military. Then we will wish our rulers had not made China & Russia into enemies.

  5. Dan Tana

    March 27, 2023 at 7:11 pm

    Gavin you are correct that a deindustrialized America cannot afford the current level of government spending. The problem is they will not stop until the people and the country literally collapse under the weight of federal debt and inflation.

  6. Arash

    March 28, 2023 at 3:30 am

    Gavin, great summary of the situation.
    But these authors don’t care. They are just here to pump their stocks.

    The fact is that America, having two mighty oceans on its flanks and only two very much passive neighbors on its borders and the breadth of an entire continent as its hinterland, is literally the most secure country god ever created.

    United States will be perfectly secure spendings even a fraction of what China spends on military. Look at China and their precarious situation on the map. Not even comparable with US situation.

  7. Fred Leander

    March 28, 2023 at 6:11 am

    Well put, Gavin!

  8. David Chang

    March 28, 2023 at 6:30 am

    God bless people in the world.

    American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation should not worship democracy and science, but confess and repent to God.

    We fight socialism parties in the world by weapon, but if people want to make nuclear war, people should say it loudly and clearly.

    God bless America.

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