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16 Ways to Cut Defense Spending

Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “the greatest threat to our national security is our debt.” Senator Coburn said on “Morning Joe” on Feb 13 that “$100 billion could be cut.” Ron Paul says that only about half [1] the defense budget is for defense, the other half is for militarism abroad.

So here are 16 ways to cut its waste, fraud, and abuse of American taxpayers.

1) The military is top-heavy with officers and generals [2] compared to enlisted men, with far more proportionately today than during World War II. The military is still trained and designed mostly for mass mobilization to refight World War II: tanks, aircraft-carrier strike groups, and fighter planes for dogfights and to shoot down bombers only Russia has. Yet Russia’s military is a shadow of its former self, plagued and demoralized by Putin-era corruption. China is dynamic, defensive, and prospers with peace.

Basing one’s military on past wars’ lessons is nothing new. British generals entered World War I with horse cavalry and the strategy of Napoleon. It’s common to start wars with the strategy of 75 years before. [3]


2)  If every missile and bomb hits its target—unlike in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—why do we need so many planes, tanks, and warships? Drones now can replace many pilots. In the Korean War it took 4 months of trying to bomb the Yalu River bridge by which most Chinese supplies arrived. Now a single missile from hundreds of miles away can do it. No aircraft carrier was used during the recent war in Libya because of fear of medium-range anti-ship missiles. Carriers today are very vulnerable against modern nations, although useful for attacking mostly helpless Third World ones. Do we need as many as the 12 strike groups we have? The whole way we fight wars needs to be re-examined. We can’t go on like in Iraq, shooting a quarter million bullets for each dead insurgent. [4] The waste in our war-fighting is beyond comprehension. Rep. Mike Coffman details 15 ways some $50 billion per year could be saved [5]—for example, some $100 billion over 10 years by adopting “sea swap” policies for cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious ships by flying crews out to ships instead of changing crews at home ports. Think of all the waste in fuel and wear-and-tear sailing thousands of miles each way back home to port.

3) Combine military medical services. Each of the armed forces has its own medical corps. An excessive number of Army colonels are doctors. The Navy and Air Force presumably have similar overstaffing, usually based on World War II models. Yet it’s the infantry and Marines who suffer nearly all the casualties. Other services face fewer risks to their lives and health.

4) Former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England [6] urged cutting 100,000 civilian employees from the Defense Department when it had 700,000 employees, the same number as during World War 2. Now the number has grown to 800,000.

5) Tricare costs [7] the Pentagon budget over $50 billion per year to provide almost free healthcare to all military retirees and their families for life, even if they are working in other jobs with health insurance. Former Secretary of Defense Gates tried in vain to establish reasonable co-pays and reforms.

6) Senator Coburn complained that the military schools were costing $50,000 per student. He urged reforms such as using more local civilian schools near military bases.

7) The military maintains some 4,000 bases inside the U.S. and 1,000 overseas with personnel in 140 nations; many installations have fewer than 100 troops. Many are simply tripwires filled with potential hostages so as to get America involved in new conflicts and wars. Vast cutbacks are possible. We need a new base closing commission to take the matter out of the hands of our corrupted Congress (see The Hidden Cost of Empire [8]).

8) The military is paid vastly more than civilians. Officers and enlisted men earn an average cash income some 80 percent higher than civilians with similar skills and education. Their pension and medical benefits put them far beyond what any worker in the private sector earns. For details see the 11th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation. [9]

9) Retirement ages were set well over a hundred years ago when life spans were under 60 years. Surely noncombat personnel could retire with pensions after, say, 25 years instead of 20. The risk to their lives and health is marginal in most military occupations; Northern Virginia is not a combat zone, even if personnel wear combat uniforms and boots to work. Civilians now often must work well into their seventies.

10) Retired generals and admirals should be prohibited for five years from working for the military-industrial complex so that they will use their skills elsewhere to help the civilian economy. Remember the CNN and Fox News generals [10] promoting more war who were outed by the New York Times for profiting from Pentagon suppliers.

11) It’s not just Pentagon waste. The CIA and other intelligence agencies have virtual blank checks without oversight. The Washington Post ran a series [11] about their infighting and duplication of efforts with 50,000 yearly reports [12], many unread and unnecessary. When Leon Paneta went to the Pentagon, it was reported that he flew back to California at government expense every weekend. When he did the same while running the CIA, the information was classified secret.

12) It cost half a million in Iraq [13] and nearly a million dollars in Afghanistan [14] to maintain each soldier per year. Obviously fewer foreign interventions would save hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

13) Weaponry is the greatest money sink of all [15]. Weapons are designed to be built in key congressional districts, not to be the most efficient or cost effective, as during the Second World War. The F-22 had 1,000 suppliers in 44 states. The F-35 [16] has 1,300 suppliers in 45 states in key congressional districts and is now estimated to cost up to $300 million per plane. Weapons manufacturing is started before finalized testing so as to build a constituency for programs’ continuation. Military contractors then get cost-plus contracts to modify the weapons, which won’t work properly because insufficient initial testing was done before manufacturing them.  Congressmen stick the Pentagon with suppliers at extra-high cost (see this report on oil pans for $17,000 each [17]) from their congressional districts and then (often) get donations from the same companies for their campaign funds.  Other Congressmen put in spending for projects the Pentagon does not even want [18]. The whole process contributes vastly to corruption in Washington and undermining America. The Wall Street Journal ran an article [19] pondering what fighter planes would cost if Apple manufactured them like it makes iPhones.

14) Half of defense manufacturing workers are unionized, many with outdated work rules and few of the efficiencies instituted by competitive private industry, e.g., cutting out much middle management and using labor to maximum efficiency.

15) America maintains duplicate forces: two armies (i.e., Army and Marine Corps.) and four air forces (the Air Force, Marine Corps aviation, Naval Air Forces, and the CIA’s fleet of aircraft and drones). The Marines should be maintained for their special skills as an elite, smaller force, not as an auxiliary army. The air forces should cut out duplication. We still maintain some 50 nuclear submarines. Do we really need so many when a single one can bottle up a whole Third World navy, as England did with Argentina in the Falklands War?

16) Rand Paul has demanded that the Pentagon be audited, something Congress has so far been unable to do. The Defense Department does not even know all the cash [20], supplies, foreign bases [21], and inventory it has. Much more vast and incredible waste remains to be discovered.

These are some of the possible savings in military costs. They don’t include the largest benefit of all: the value many of the highly skilled and motivated men and women in the military could bring to the civilian workforce. The mostly wasted talent pool is incredible. All American strategy should be re-examined. Indeed, Washington now violates [22] most of the precepts of the greatest military strategist in history.

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative.

57 Comments (Open | Close)

57 Comments To "16 Ways to Cut Defense Spending"

#1 Comment By Ben On March 3, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

and what are we going to do with all the military hardware you want to reduce? sell it? destroy it? yes we need cuts but don’t think we should just get rid of hard ware let it phase itself out and replace it more intelligently replace every super carrier when its reactor goes with patrol boats with cruise missiles remove all US troops from over seas because we don’t need to be there if a country or people from a country attack us its simple kill every man woman and child if they are non compliant but remain neutral unless provoked.

#2 Comment By Carl Rossini On March 5, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

I find point number 8, that military personnel are paid more than civilian workers, to be suspect, because military working conditions are much more difficult and dangerous.

A thought experiment: Take a 23 year old senior telephone system technician working for AT&T in Detroit. Tell that technician, to keep her job, she must maintain body and physical fitness standards, be available 24/7, work in a war zone in direct combat support where she could be maimed or die, be away from her home, friends and family 40% of the time, can be ordered anywhere across the globe, and must sign a three year contract. She must take orders and be ready to defend herself. Conditions will be dirty, smelly, co-ed and uncomfortable.

Oh, and under your logic, she is supposed to sign on at the same rate of pay. Good luck.

#3 Comment By David On March 9, 2013 @ 9:13 am

Eisenhower was the only president to ever warn the public about the danger of the military industrial complex. Others have merely abetted the MICs insatiable thirst for more money and resources. Our democracy, or what’s left of it, is seriously undermined by this rampant runaway beast. And the silent and numb public is just as guilty for perpetuating this untennable situation.

#4 Comment By Paul Emmons On March 11, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

How can an article largely so full of good ideas also contain a couple such howlers?

>8) The military is paid vastly more than civilians.

Unless you plan on reinstituting the draft, this goes with volunteer armed forces, as well as training and keeping those with the highly specialized skills needed by modern technology. Even now, there is hardly a surplus of volunteers. Do you have any idea what hard-sell tactics military recruiters must use as it is? And they already concentrate on the most economically desolate neighborhoods in the country, where young people are desperate to find any work at all.

>4) Former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England urged cutting 100,000 civilian employees from the Defense Department when it had 700,000 employees, the same number as during World War 2.

The reference to World War 2 is a total red herring. Men in uniform performed many support functions then which have since been farmed out to civilians. In view of point 8, you wouldn’t want to return to that situation. So who is going to do the work? It’s not very informative just to imply that there simply must be ways to economize, without plausible specifics. Nor can I see that much could be saved by outsourcing to “contractors”– although, as in other areas, it is easy to imagine that it is part of a writer’s hidden agenda.

#5 Comment By DANEL On January 3, 2015 @ 12:25 am

Military Personnel for the training they receive are extremely under-paid. I make over 90K a year in private industry, my health and dental benefits cost me less then $140.00 month, I have no college or formal education or certificates, I work 8-5 mon-fri. I have 12 years experience in the industry. A MAJOR with 38 years of service doesn’t even earn that, and they are required to have a Bachelor Degree and most likely a Masters by the time they are promoted to Major. Most of the military enjoy the comradery and military lifestyle that most civilians can’t handle. Thats why they stay in. Trust me their perks are easily obtainable through corporations or state local governments. Remember our military is here for the what-ifs. And yes it maybe cheaper to have a single basket with all of our eggs in it, vs several baskets with a few eggs, but with our national security on the line, we shouldn’t place all of our eggs in one or two baskets. Your playing with fire their.

#6 Pingback By American Conservative magazine: Why the U.S. needs endless war, not victory | Tales from the Conspiratum On June 16, 2015 @ 3:12 am

[…] spending such as closing surplus bases, cutting duplicate systems, and focusing on waste. See 16 Ways to Cut Defense. Shakespeare put it well, advising a king to have lots of foreign wars in order to have tranquility […]

#7 Comment By TBOU On July 14, 2015 @ 10:44 pm

A lot of good and interesting points, but many out of context.

“1) officer inflation and don’t follow past planning”
-many good points, but the point is kind of dichotomous. If we have more generals (and officers in general) than at anytime before, we’re not exactly following the old play book.

A lot of this is also out of context. We have much fewer ships, each of which can do more than any ship in WWII (where you had to actually see things to shoot at them). And similar issues exist with comparing raw general numbers to planes, we have fewer and more complex planes, so of course that number should go up.

And it’s not clear beyond platitudes that it’s worse now than before. I believe there’s systemic issues (many in the ranks do as well), but an apples-apples comparison would be better. In some comparisons the top heavy version is better, it has much fewer fratricides, deaths, and even enemy deaths; so plotting fratricides by number of generals would show the same statistics as being beneficial…

“8) The military is paid vastly more than civilians.”
-OK, so a 22 year poly sci major is making a fortune compared to civilian prospects of working at Micky D’s, but those with technical degrees usually make less in the military than they could outside. So it’s not clear cut or consistent that they make more.

On tricare and even pay, a lot comes down to balance. Do you want hopefully more professional people or the people from the draft? Knowing people in military from both the Vietnam era and today, the current version sounds more professional and with more camaraderie. You have to offer something to incentivize it.

25 years for retirement might be a good idea, I’ve heard that some European militaries are even nearing 30+ years for that.