Secretary Esper's Reforms Face Long Odds | Citizens Against Government Waste

Secretary Esper's Reforms Face Long Odds

The WasteWatcher

Not for the first time, an incoming Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary has promised big changes at the Pentagon.

Confirmed by the Senate on July 23, 2019, DOD Secretary Mark Esper has initiated a wide-ranging review in order to cut costs and reinvest savings in next-generation platforms.  Among other areas, the review will focus on legacy programs that have become a drain on DOD resources.  In an August 28, 2019 press briefing, Secretary Esper stated, “The idea is to take a hard look at our activities so that everything we do drives towards our strategic objectives, which are designed to achieve our policy aims.  If something doesn’t, then we ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing it?’ and ‘What should we be doing instead?’”

An August 31, 2019 Defense News article detailed a number of possibilities that the review might target.  Beyond legacy systems, these include closing bases and shifting non-warfighting medical research from the DOD to the National Institutes of Health. 

Of course, the new secretary will face the same long odds as past Pentagon reform efforts, as opposition to change remains fierce.  Members of Congress are likely to fight each of these proposals tooth and nail.  The Pentagon undertook six rounds of Base Realignment and Closure Commissions (BRAC) between 1988 and 2005.  However, fearing damage to local economies and the loss of jobs, legislators have resisted new BRAC reviews over the past 14 years.  The next round of BRAC, which could save as much as $2 billion, is currently in the balance.

Congress has also impeded efforts to reduce spending on non-military medical research.  Since fiscal year (FY) 1996, legislators added 736 earmarks for the Defense Health Program, costing taxpayers $13.3 billion.  This total includes $1.5 billion in FY 2019, the most ever earmarked for the program.

Though they frequently deserve criticism, members of Congress are not always to blame when it comes to scuppering reform.  In tackling outdated legacy programs, Secretary Esper might even encounter opposition from his own boss. 

One legacy system that could be defunded without jeopardizing national security is the M1 Abrams tank upgrade program.  Over the objections of senior DOD officials, legislators have for years earmarked funding to convert the M1 Abrams into the M1A2SEP variant.  Although the tank plant is in Lima, Ohio, its suppliers are spread across the country, which helps to explain the program’s widespread support.  In fact, past versions of the DOD Appropriations Act, including the FYs 2016 and 2017 versions, hinted at a parochial incentive for the program’s continuance:  industrial base support.  There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned jobs program disguised as a national security priority. 

In March 2019, President Trump got in on the act.  In FY 2019, his administration increased its funding request for the M1 Abrams by $1.4 billion from FY 2018, and made a campaign-style tour stop at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima.  President Trump opened the event stating, “You better love me – I kept this place open.”

In this climate, it is worth revisiting why the Pentagon has long objected to finite resources being wasted on an unwanted project.  In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on February 17, 2012, then-Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno told Congress that the U.S. possesses more than enough tanks to meet the country’s needs, stating “our tank fleet is in good shape.”  In fact, the Army has so many M1 tanks that 2,000 of them are parked in a California desert.  This logic still applies today.

Any effort to reform the bloated and inefficient Pentagon budget should be applauded.  Unfortunately, Secretary Esper faces steep odds in his attempt at implementing reforms.

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