The Defense Budget

The Defense Budget

Just to follow up on Steve’s post about the defense budget: if you read Gates’ speech, it’s even better than Noah Schachtman makes it sound. For one thing, Gates puts a lot of emphasis on doing things for the troops — research on topics like traumatic brain injury, support for spouses and child care, housing. This is welcome, and if the apparently endless stream of stories about soldiers returning from Iraq to barracks that should have been condemned sometime during the War of 1812 are anything to go on, long overdue.

Second, he also puts a lot of emphasis on reforming procurement. This is very, very important, and very, very tough. Weapons contractors have a lot of influence both in Washington and in various Congresspeople’s home districts. Many weapons contracts are extremely lucrative. And weapons contracts are unlike most other government contracts in that our national security depends on them.

Debates about weapons systems are very, very wonky and very, very technical. People who support a given weapons system will claim that without it, our national security will be jeopardized, and/or our soldiers’ lives put at risk. These claims are very hard for civilians to assess. Because the stakes are so high, no one wants to be wrong; nor does any politician want to confront a phalanx of retired generals and industry experts swearing up and down that by cutting that weapons system, s/he’s putting the country at risk, especially since virtually no one understands the details enough to know who’s right.

This means that weapons procurement is even harder than other kinds of procurement to get under control. But it’s essential. For one thing, it really matters to get defense spending right, and right now, we’re getting it wrong in a very expensive way. Moreover, the more untouchable contracts become, the more liable they become to various forms of corruption, as the Duke Cunningham scandal illustrated.

It remains to be seen whether this survives Congress. But I’m really glad to see the administration take this on.

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