- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2010

The defense budget is like a doughnut with no hole. The outer ring supports the best military in the world - good pay, housing and benefits; maintenance and replacement of equipment; and transportation and support of forces around the world. The soft middle includes expensive weapons that can and should be cut.

In January 1961, President Eisenhower warned that the growing military-industrial complex was a threat to the nation’s economy. Fifty years later, an annual Pentagon budget of $726 billion is still too high.

Members of Congress are told by advocacy groups that it is OK to cut everything in the operating budget except defense. Not only must defense be spared, it must be increased every year. But with a huge and growing national debt, defense spending no longer can remain off the table.

The soft middle of the defense doughnut is what Eisenhower meant in his warning - the expensive weapons that generals and admirals would like to have, that industry wants to produce and that their friends in Congress want made in their state or district. But what do we really need for the nation’s defense?

Every year, planes, ships and other weapons the Pentagon says it does not need are added to the defense bill because they are produced or based in the states of powerful lawmakers. The challenge for Congress in this time of deep deficits is to keep out add-ons and anything else that is not needed or too costly.

A good place to start would be by refusing to add things the Pentagon has not requested or that one house wants but the other doesn’t. An example is the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon has been saying for years that it does not need a second producer for this engine, but Congress has added large sums each year on the grounds that it will create competition and save money in the long run.

In the 2011 budget pending before Congress, the House approved another $450 million for development of the alternate engine, but the Senate zeroed it out as unneeded and unaffordable. With the Congressional Budget Office forecasting a $1.3 trillion deficit next year, for the third year in a row of trillion-plus deficits, the Senate action makes sense. We no longer can afford such costs for hypothetical future savings.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has proposed cutting $100 billion from the defense budget over the next five years and use the savings to buy new weapons.. The co-chairmen of the president’s deficit commission support a similar cut but would use the savings to reduce the national debt, which stands at $13.5 trillion. New weapons would be great to have - if we could afford them.

Then there are those who insist on an overall increase in defense spending every year. They just don’t want to make the hard decisions about which programs really are needed and which are not. But the defense budget consists of some 56 percent of discretionary spending, which is too much to be considered untouchable.

It is useful to look at the big picture. According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the United States spends more on defense than the next 13 countries combined. Russia, with continuing production of nuclear missiles, spends only about 8 percent as much as we do on defense. The new Congress, elected with a mandate to cut spending, should welcome the challenge of finding things that really are not needed.

But the lame-duck session should not try to pass the 2011 defense appropriation with all its earmarks and add-ons in the short time left. It would be better to extend for a couple of months the current continuing resolution that keeps money flowing at 2010 levels.

Then the new Congress can deal with the 2011 defense budget early next year.

James T. Hackett was an official in the Reagan administration.