It’s Time to Get Smarter About Defense Spending, Though it Won’t Be Painless for North Texas Contractors Like Bell Helicopter

When the subject is a reduction in military spending, look out for ruffled feathers and plenty of resistance.

I discovered this in the mid-1990s, when the feds’ Base Realignment and Closure group put Albuquerque’s big Kirtland Air Force Base on its hit list. Kirtland wasn’t scheduled to be closed outright but to get a major realignment, including the loss of about 6,800 jobs. So, as editor of a New Mexico business newspaper, I wrote that the proposed cuts—part of the nation’s post-Cold War “peace dividend”—could present a wonderful opportunity for businesspeople to repurpose parts of the base for promising entrepreneurial ventures. Shortly after I was slammed with all the blowback, a group of prominent citizens was formed to ensure that Kirtland would never be “realigned” in any meaningful way. And it wasn’t.

Now we’re facing another similar opportunity—or peril, depending on how you look at it. As Thomas Korosec explains in the March cover story of D CEO, major local defense contractors like Bell Helicopter are girding for the prospect of reduced outlays over time for military projects. Not only are two wars drawing to a close after more than a decade of combat, but the U.S. federal budget is in crisis mode, with once-unthinkable annual deficits and red ink as far as the eye can see.

If we’re serious about wrestling this Goliath to the ground, every aspect of the D.C. budget needs to be questioned. First, is the expenditure the proper purview of the feds in the first place? And, if so, are we getting the most bang for our bucks? Just as these questions need to be asked of the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture, it’s equally important to put them to the Pentagon.

Surely there’s as much waste and redundancy there as there is in the other big federal departments. In 2009, for example, the Government Accountability Office reported that defense department weapons projects, taken together, were nearly $300 billion over budget.

In their book The Next Conservatism, conservative thinkers Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind write: “The next conservatism recognizes that the Pentagon is a bureaucracy, and it behaves no differently from any other government bureaucracy. Its focus is less winning wars than acquiring and justifying more resources, expanding its bureaucratic empire, and creating career opportunities for senior officers. Conservatives should be no less skeptical of military bureaucrats than of any other bureaucrats.

“For this reason, the next conservatism embraces military reform.”

Among the military reforms the authors recommend: purchasing simpler, more effective, more affordable weapons; promoting bold leaders over office politicians; and reducing the size of the “bloated” senior officer corps. Streamlining the military won’t be easy or painless—especially in areas like North Texas, where defense-related spending is an important part of the local economy. But, we need to be serious about making the transition nonetheless.

By getting smarter about these expenditures—without compromising our national security—we’ll be stronger in the long run.

A version of this piece appears in the March 2013 issue of D CEO.

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