To cut spending, military personnel costs must be reined in

Cutting military spending is hard, but not impossible. Nearly every secretary of defense has canceled or truncated popular weapon systems, often in the face of opposition from senior military leaders and prominent members of Congress.

Dick Cheney killed the Navy and Marine Corps’ A-12 Avenger attack aircraft, Donald Rumsfeld axed the Army’s Crusader artillery system and the Comanche helicopter, and Robert Gates capped the purchase of new F-22 fighters for the Air Force.

In other cases, though, Congress forces the Pentagon to buy things it doesn’t want or need: Cheney tried — and failed — to kill the V-22 Osprey. Congress may saddle the Air Force with the A-10 Thunderbolt (better known as the Warthog) for a few more years or compel the Navy to keep the aircraft carrier George Washington in service. The Pentagon is maintaining excess base capacity, partly because Congress has resisted efforts to close any in the United States since 2005.

Congress’ shortsighted parochialism could have a serious impact on military readiness. Consider, for example, the one area of the Pentagon’s budget that has remained nearly impervious to cost cutting: salaries and benefits for military personnel.

The reasons why are obvious enough: The military is the most popular institution in America, and the men and women serving in the military are almost universally revered. Cutting the troops’ pay is about as popular as kicking Santa Claus on Christmas — but the criticism lasts 365 days of the year.

Still, there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that personnel costs must be reined in. A joint statement signed by over two-dozen defense experts warned, “If Congress fails to curb the growth in military compensation costs, they will continue to grow as the defense budget shrinks, crowding out funds needed for training, readiness and for the replacement of worn-out equipment.”

There is another way to reduce military personnel costs without cutting pay and benefits for active-duty men and women: Reduce the number of active-duty troops.

A smaller military could be even more well-trained and better compensated than the one that we have today.

In nearly every human endeavor, from farming to manufacturing, technology has reduced the number of people required to accomplish a task. The military is no exception. Aircraft with pilots and large crews on board once dropped many bombs to destroy a single target.

Over time, smaller planes with just one or two people on board dropped more accurate ordnance. Today, remotely piloted aircraft essentially eliminate the risk to the attacker. Similar stories of fewer personnel operating fewer platforms and achieving greater results, can be told with respect to crews on naval ships and submarines.

But an exception remains. Armed-nation building, what the military calls counterinsurgency, has proved nearly impervious to efficiency gains.

When the United States chooses to shuffle the political deck in a weak or failing state, it needs men and women on the ground to do the work.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Send comments to [email protected].