WASHINGTON — Republicans are putting the defense budget under the magnifying glass after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., committed to $130 billion in discretionary spending cuts in order to win his protracted speakership race. McCarthy vowed to cap discretionary spending — more than half of which goes to the Defense Department — at fiscal 2022 levels and did not rule out defense spending cuts in a January interview with Fox News.
Republican defense hawks, who had previously argued for an annual 3% to 5% defense budget increase over inflation, are now taking a serious look at how to squeeze savings out of the Defense Department alongside outside conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation. Proposals range from reducing the Pentagon’s civilian personnel to procurement reform to possible base closures to halting the military’s efforts to fight climate change.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, previewed some potential Defense Department cost-cutting measures during an interview in his office on Tuesday with Defense News.
“At the same time that we create these efficiencies and find ways we can save money – for instance, the number of things that we’re spending on that we shouldn’t be spending money on – we’ll find some initial cuts in the Pentagon…throughout the Department of Defense that will not hurt capability,” said Calvert.
Thomas Spoeher, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center For National Defense, told Defense News that “fiscal hawks in particular are going to want to have some reassurance that somebody has looked really hard at the defense budget and made sure that every dollar that we’re spending is something that helps the warfighter increase the warfighting capability.”
Calvert noted that reducing the size of the Defense Department’s civilian workforce alone “would save $125 billion over five years — and that’s real money where I come from.”
“The Department of Defense is the largest enterprise in the world,” he said. “It obviously has a budget closing in on $850 billion, about 3.2 million people — both civilian and military — that work there.”
He vowed that the reductions would not require the Defense Department to fire civilian employees.
“Like any large business, you’ve got a 5% turnover ratio per year,” said Calvert. “So if you hire 3% instead of 5%, you get a reduction over a period of time that will have a significant impact over the bottom line. Remember, our highest cost is personnel because we have a volunteer service.”
The Defense Department employs more than 830,000 civilian employees on top of 1.3 million active duty service members and slightly less than 1 million National Guard and Reserve service members, according to the Congressional Research Service. Calvert noted that’s a “historic ratio of civilian employees relative to the uniform force.”
Even if Congress cuts funding for the civilian workforce, it’s unclear how much savings that would bring the defense spending topline next year — particularly as Calvert eyes a pay raise for enlisted personnel.
“That’s part of the recruitment problem we’re having amongst other things,” he said. “Right now, an E-1 is entering at $11 an hour. McDonalds is hiring at $15 an hour. So, we’ve got to get those salary levels up.”
Calvert first floated reducing the size of the Defense Department’s civilian workforce in 2021. Democrats who controlled the House at the time resisted.
Other measures Calvert proposed may have bipartisan buy-in, such as reforming payment processes and procurement timelines.
“Accounts payable — the way the bills are paid — from the way I look at it as a business guy, it’s somewhat antiquated,” he said. “We need to digitize the processes in which the business is operated, which they have not done.”
Calvert also said he would like to “fix the procurement system,” noting that it can take up to seven years for the military to acquire Humvees.
“Congress shares a lot to blame because we’ve added these requirements over the years and now it’s gotten so complex it takes a ridiculous amount of time to get anything,” he said.
Base realignment and closure
For his part, Spoeher of the Heritage Foundation views base realignment and closure, or BRAC, as “the top of the list” for cost-cutting, noting that it could save roughly $2 billion per year.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., endorsed base realignment and closure as well as other potential cost-cutting measures.
“We should expect those types of proposals,” Reed said at a virtual event on Tuesday hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “I can recall several years ago when Senator [John McCain, R-Ariz.] and I were interested in getting a BRAC, we honestly couldn’t get much traction. But I think that’s something that we should periodically take a look at.”
The Defense Department’s last base realignment and closure occurred in 2005. While the Pentagon endorsed the Reed-McCain effort to do so again in 2017, their proposal failed to advance among lawmakers worried about losing jobs in their states and districts.
Another potential cost-saving measure that could fall victim to parochial interests in Congress are efforts to divest from legacy platforms in favor of more modern systems. House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., has started championing these divestments in recent weeks, which also enjoy support from his Democratic counterpart Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Reed.
Lawmakers on the Armed Services committees blocked the Air Force’s plan to retire 33 Block 20 F-22s when Congress passed the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act in December. Those F-22s are now mainly used for training purposes because they are no longer capable in combat.
Other cost-cutting proposals not subject to parochial whims may still fun afoul of partisan disputes, especially in a Republican-held House and Democratic-run Senate.
For instance, the Defense Department is the world’s largest institutional fossil fuel consumer but Republicans would like to halt its efforts to transition its fleet of non-tactical vehicles to run on electricity or other alternative fuels.
Spoeher noted that the Defense Department’s budget request last year included $3 billion in climate change funding.
“There’s things like better hurricane protection for installations that are on the Gulf Coast, raising the docks in Norfolk base to account for rising oceans, so I think that’s appropriate,” he said. “But then you can find stuff that’s less well-justified like money spent on researching ways to convert [the department’s] vehicles to electric — tactical and non-tactical — microgrids for installations that are right next to some commercial power sources that they feel the need to add.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.