Congress Should End the U.S. Military’s Wish Lists

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In his first budget request to Congress, President Joe Biden is set to propose $715 billion in defense spending — a 0.4% cut in real terms. After four years in which military spending increased substantially, the administration is right to take aim at Pentagon excess and seek greater value for taxpayer dollars. But perhaps the biggest obstacles to realizing those goals are the military services themselves.

Each year, the heads of the country’s main service branches — the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines — submit lists of “unfunded requirements” that they think are being shortchanged by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. The services aren’t merely encouraged to provide these wish lists to Congress; since 2017, they’ve been required to do so by law. In recent years, Congress has even expanded the requirement, mandating that the leaders of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Missile Defense Agency, the Coast Guard and the Space Force submit lists of their own.

The result is an annual bonanza that explicitly prioritizes the desires of uniformed commanders over the decisions of the Pentagon’s top officials. In the most recent fiscal year, there were at least $18 billion in wish list requests by nine separate services and combatant commands, adding more than 2% to the budget submitted by Donald Trump’s administration. Among the goodies handed out by Congress: $1 billion to the Air Force to purchase 12 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters than the Pentagon had requested — the latest expenditure on an aircraft that has already cost taxpayers $398 billion but has yet to be fully tested.

In defending these lists, lawmakers say they amount to only a small fraction of the defense budget and protect military programs from indiscriminate cuts. The damage caused by the policy, however, far outweighs any upside.

For one, it encourages Congress to continue pouring money into costly projects that often benefit defense contractors and local constituencies more than the national interest. Enabling the service branches to lobby for themselves also harms the Defense Department’s ability to make budgeting decisions based on strategic objectives, rather than parochial needs. And by allowing military leaders to defy the authority of the secretary of defense, the wish lists undermine the core democratic principle of civilian control of the military.

In the interests of fiscal discipline and national security, leaders of both parties should agree to strip these requirements from the next National Defense Authorization Act. If Congress fails to act, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should insist on reviewing the wish lists before they’re sent to Capitol Hill, and require that service-branch chiefs identify savings from other programs to offset their unfunded requests. Austin can draw on the example of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who publicly shamed officials for trying to procure funding he hadn’t approved — and in the process reduced the total amount requested by 90%.

Maintaining the country’s military edge requires not only a healthy defense budget but also proper civilian oversight to ensure resources are spent wisely. The existence of congressionally mandated wish lists encourages the opposite. The sooner the U.S. gets rid of them, the better.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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