Growing Debt Threatens US National Security: Defense Leaders
Policy + Politics

Growing Debt Threatens US National Security: Defense Leaders

Reuters/iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

U.S. national security and the country’s status as a global military leader will be imperiled unless the Defense Department and Congress enact as series of fiscal and internal reforms, according to a bipartisan group of former defense leaders.

The federal debt is projected to climb to 131 percent of the nation's GDP over the next 25 years and that “impairs our ability to lead,” retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday during the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s 2016 Fiscal Summit in Washington. (The Fiscal Times owned and funded by Peter G. Peterson.)

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The group – whose members includes former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger and former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta – issued a statement on Tuesday calling for “fiscal security” and suggesting a series of policy fixes to rein in the debt.

Mullen, now the chair of the Coalition for Fiscal and National Security, cited recommendations from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission early last year as a model for money-savings reforms that could be made. The recommendations focused on potential overhauls to military personnel benefits, including compensation and health care.

Mullen noted that since military compensation writ large makes up roughly half of the Pentagon’s annual budget, it squeezes the entire agency’s topline, including things like weapons procurement.

“If we get the people side, we'll be alright; if we don't, it doesn't matter what we buy,” he told the audience.

However, he conceded that sweeping reform is “very difficult to get across the line, historically, any version of it.”

Mullen also said “it’s about time” for another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. The Pentagon’s fiscal 2017 budget request marked the fifth consecutive year defense officials requested a new base closure process; the proposal was dead on arrival in Congress as lawmakers worry it could wind up targeting military installations back home.

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The House version of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bans the Pentagon from launching a BRAC and the Senate version of the policy bill is expected to follow suit.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), a member of Mullen’s group who once chaired the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress “has got to reform itself” when it comes to the sprawling defense budget.

For instance, he suggested that the congressional budget, appropriations and authorization panels in both chambers be consolidated down to two so lawmakers don’t get “six cracks on the apple” to insert their pet issues into the Pentagon’s budget.

Nunn also suggested bipartisan legislation that would require the various service secretaries to come from the business world to help the branches to spend their money more wisely.

“At least try it for four years,” he said.

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel chided Congress for restricting the Pentagon’s authority to manage and for the number of new reports the NDAA asks for every year, often times on “goofy things that don’t add to our security.”

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He also lamented that the budget caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act will return in fiscal 2018, something that will require the Pentagon to cut tens of billions from its budget unless Congress finds a long-term solution.

Hagel said Congress has “gotten way off the track” and needs to get back “responsible governance.”

All three expressed some form of disappointment over the loose rhetoric on military spending that’s been used on the 2016 campaign trail.

Nunn, for instance, said he thought Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was more fiscally responsible when it came to national security because she spells out how she would pay for her programs, whereas presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump doesn’t.

However, Clinton’s solutions do nothing to address the problem of the debt.

“We may have to call upon Captain America here to rescue us,” Hagel said when asked to weigh in on the GOP primary and the state of the Senate Republican caucus.