By Senator Lindsey Graham
As a member of Congress, I have strived to be a strong supporter of a robust national defense and a good steward of taxpayer dollars. But increasing budgetary pressures now are forcing us to ask whether the military can do more with less, and if so, how?
I believe we can reduce defense spending in a responsible manner through reform and efficiencies. America is on an unsustainable spending path that represents a real threat to our way of life, including our national security. So in these fiscally challenging times, we don't have any other option than to put the defense budget on the table. But reductions must be built around combating the ever-increasing threats we face, both foreign and domestic.
Already, the Defense Department has undertaken the first steps to trim $400 billion from its budget. These cuts are achievable but need to be targeted carefully. If the Pentagon is forced to live with an additional $600 billion in cuts as proposed in the misguided Budget Control Act, we will hollow out the most effective military in the history of the world.
The so-called triggers resulting in sequestration are beyond severe and represent a dangerous and mindless approach to our national security. When I asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta whether we would be shooting ourselves in the foot by cutting defense by $600 billion over the next decade (on top of the $400 billion), he replied, "We would be shooting ourselves in the head."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen both wisely identified our growing debt as one of the greatest threats to our national security. And the secretary has sounded the alarm about the need to be prepared to address terrorist networks, the destabilizing acts and nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, rising regional powers such as China and our ability to maintain a viable nuclear deterrent force.
We must also plan for the possibility that our NATO partners will not be spending more than 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense over the next decade, putting more pressure on our military.
We must prepare our forces to do more with less. But we also need to recognize that mindless spending cuts -- in which we randomly pick numbers out of thin air -- undermine our military's ability to protect our national interests at home and abroad. American defense dollars must follow our defense strategy, not the other way around.
If the supercommittee fails to come up with an acceptable deficit reduction, I think it makes more sense to institute a 5 percent across-the-board cut in government spending, combined with a 10 percent cut in pay for members of Congress. Then, spending reductions would be shared by all Americans and would not lead to the destruction of the military.
But how can we make the military do more with less? Here are a few ideas:
Weapons procurement reform
Cost-plus contracts should be scuttled when it comes to major weapons systems. It's a system only the government would love -- the longer it takes, the more it costs, the more the contractor makes. This unsustainable system isn't fair to the taxpayers and demands congressional reform.
We should begin moving toward fixed-price contracting, which would bring stability to Pentagon budgets and save billions of dollars in future weapon-acquisition costs. Contractors should have "skin in the game" when it comes to developing weapon systems. Cost overruns should be shared between contractors and the government.
I'm proud to be teaming with Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire to co-sponsor the Defense Cost-Type Contracting Reform Act, which would save billions by preventing wasteful contract cost over-runs.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has already demonstrated a willingness to take on cost overruns in the Defense Authorization Bill by including a mandate that the next set of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters be purchased under a fixed-price contract. If the price of the fighters goes over the target amount, the contractor is on the hook for 100 percent of the extra costs. It's an important first step in the right direction, but we can and should do more.
Personnel cost reform
The single largest military expense is not tanks and planes and other equipment, but personnel, accounting for 45 percent of the base defense budget.
We owe it to our military men and women to provide them with competitive pay, good health care and robust retirements.
One of the fastest growing areas of the defense budget is military retiree health care costs. Just like in the private sector, these costs continue to rapidly escalate. Yet there has been no meaningful increase in TRICARE premiums for retirees since 1989.
In this year's Defense Authorization Bill, we plan to make small corrections to address this issue, but the general consensus is more must be done in years ahead. The current rate of growth is clearly unsustainable and -- if not addressed -- will pit the needs of retirees against our strategic interests and the needs of the active duty force.
In a few years, I will retire from the Air Force Reserves as a colonel. I know I could certainly afford an increase in TRICARE premiums. But not everyone is in my position. Those who cannot afford a modest premium increase should be protected to the greatest extent possible. But the concept of incremental premium adjustments is a must. We should work together in a bipartisan manner to achieve this goal.
Contract force reform
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there's been an explosion in the number and cost of the contract force. Many times these civilian contractors will perform jobs similar to those of active-duty soldiers, but at three times their pay. Today, there are more than 500,000 civilian contractors working in the Defense Department's service sector alone. We need to take a close look at this and put ideas on the table about how we can constrain and roll back the growth of civilian employees, particularly the contract force.
We can challenge the status quo. But in our effort to balance the budget, we should all realize there will not be Social Security and economic prosperity without national security.
As a Republican, I am very disappointed our party embraced the supercommittee trigger mechanism of cutting defense by $600 billion if no deal is struck, which would be devastating to our military. To me, this represents a philosophical shift for the GOP away from our historical record of being the party of peace through strength espoused by Ronald Reagan.
We have built the finest military in the history of the world, and a strong national defense is the No. 1 priority of the federal government. I realize our current budget situation demands that everything, including defense, be on the table for some level of spending reductions. But the difference between serious thinking and mindless hollowing out of our military is a real one. I will embrace the former and vigorously oppose the latter.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.