The defense bill just passed by the U.S. House of Representatives has fueled a number of important debates on Capitol Hill. Provisions regarding the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and the military's alarmingly high incidence of sexual assault have been especially controversial.
It is remarkable, however, that so little attention has been paid to the bill's price tag — a whopping $638 billion.
Even with the automatic federal cuts known as the sequester, the nation's budget crisis shows no signs of abating. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the government will spend more than $46.6 trillion over the next decade.
Spending by the Department of Defense is a significant part of that. In 2012, the $682 billion the government spent on defense accounted for nearly 20 percent of the federal budget.
Fortunately, America's defense apparatus presents a number of opportunities to dramatically reduce federal spending without endangering U.S. security. This should begin with programs that exceed cost projections and are behind schedule.
The Pentagon must hold defense contractors more accountable. According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, major defense acquisitions programs exceeded initial cost estimates by more than $400 billion in 2012. And the average delay for one of these programs was 27 months, up from 22 months just a couple of years ago.
Consider Northrop Grumman's radar system known as the Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR). Since the company began developing the program for the Marine Corps in 2005, G/ATOR's costs have more than doubled. Research and development costs alone have increased by 145 percent and now stand at $893 million. And while G/ATOR was supposed to be up and running by early 2007, that deadline has slipped to 2016. And the per-unit cost of this system has doubled.
In June, the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed serious concern about G/ATOR's "requirements, capabilities, and affordability."
Lockheed Martin's Medium Extended Air and Missile Defense System is just as bad. It's 10 years behind schedule and expected to cost at least $2 billion more than originally anticipated. Even worse, the U.S. Army no longer even wants the product.
It's no wonder that Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has nicknamed this program the "missile to nowhere." Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., recently compared MEADS to "the bathtub scene in Fatal Attraction" -- it keeps coming back even when you think it's been killed.
The Pentagon can't continue to let defense contractors off scot-free for cost overruns and missed deadlines. Especially since a stricter system of oversight and accountability could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
The Department of Defense would also benefit from a close assessment of projects that have no direct effect on national security. According to a recent report from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the government could save as much as $69 billion over the next decade by eliminating wasteful and duplicative defense spending.
For example, the military currently operates 247 grocery stores around the world. Getting the Pentagon out of the grocery business could free up $9.1 billion over 10 years, the report estimates.
Coburn also identifies $700 million in savings that could be reaped by overhauling the Defense Department's alternative energy programs. These energy initiatives have little to do with defending the U.S. — in fact, many of them do similar work to programs already funded through the Department of Energy.
Any serious effort to resolve our nation's fiscal crisis needs to include a plan to scale back defense spending. Targeted reforms addressing the Pentagon's most flagrant misuses of taxpayer money are long overdue. And contrary to what critics might say, a leaner, more cost-effective Department of Defense would make us more secure.