How Rand Paul Can Be a Fiscal and Defense Hawk

[mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] (R-KY) had a great night in Milwaukee on Tuesday. Going into the fourth GOP presidential debate, the libertarian Republican faced skepticism from several quarters about his ability to stand out in a crowded field that still hasn’t winnowed itself since the departure of Gov. Scott Walker. Paul’s debate performance was aggressive, he had passion, and he drove the discussion at several points.

But his misstep of the night was when he railed against an increase in defense spending – supported by nearly every other Republican in the race – on the grounds that a fiscal hawk can’t support putting more money into the Department of Defense. “Can you be a conservative and be liberal on military spending?” he asked in a jab aimed mostly at [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ] (R-FL), a foreign policy hawk who is rising in the polls.

Thanks to both automatic budget cuts and the Obama Administration’s own imposed cuts, military spending is on the decline, with a recent Heritage Foundation assessment declaring, “America is falling dangerously behind on defense spending.” The think-tank’s 2016 Index of Military Strength, already released, details cuts to both current and future military systems and personnel levels. 

Instead of allowing himself to be called an “isolationist” (as Rubio tagged him on Tuesday night), Paul should push for a restoration of American military power through smarter defense spending. Being a fiscal hawk isn’t exclusive to being a budget hawk, and vice versa. The Department of Defense is a bureaucracy and like every other federal bureaucracy is chock full of bloat and, worse, mired in a horribly flawed procurement process.

Unlike perhaps the Department of Education, the Department of Defense does fulfill a very specific, Constitutionally enumerated role: to provide for the “common defense” of the nation. As someone who has consistently emphasized Constitutional principles throughout his Senate career and on the presidential campaign trail, Paul can most certainly be in favor of robust defense spending while returning the federal government to the confines of the Constitution.

It is not hard to find examples of waste and inefficient spending at the Department of Defense. Even amid tightening budgets, the agency and its services still pursue some pretty expensive – and questionable – procurement programs designed to produce the high-tech military hardware warfighters will use to keep the nation safe and deter would-be aggressors. A current favorite example of a procurement process gone awry is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an airplane designed to meet the differing needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. In between the political process of determining what all the services want in a new fighter, and the development process of making those desires a reality, an airplane of questionable value has emerged.

The Joint Strike Fighter program is estimated to eventually cost $1.5 trillion and will replace the F-16 and other currently serving frontline aircraft. But there’s a problem. According to tests of dogfighting between the incoming F-35 and outgoing F-16, the older and cheaper airplane consistently beat the new, bureaucratically designed aircraft. Another flaw in the F-35 is that it can’t effectively pull off basic vertical takeoff and landing maneuvers that were commonplace for a British-built warplane designed in the 1960s.

At sea it is an open secret that the Navy’s new class of surface combatant, the Littoral Combat Ship – roughly half of which will be built north of Milwaukee in Marinette, Wisconsin – lacks enough firepower to be a serious competitor to ships currently used by the navies of China and Russia. The LCS is a case study in bad defense procurement: After a fight between two contractors bidding on the deal, the Navy announced each contractor would build half of the total desired ships. Never mind that each design is so radically different the parts and training aren’t interchangeable and the Navy will need to have two separate supply chains to keep the ships operational.

Ideas for reforming the procurement process abound. The American Enterprise Institute in 2013 published a recommendation that included, among other things, the suggestion that procurement focus on using off-the-shelf technology where possible instead of specially created military components that cost more. The very bureaucratic system the DOD uses to acquire new material could also use reform.

Rand Paul could carve a niche for himself in the GOP presidential field by talking about the defense procurement issue and the need to rebuild the military with smart spending, not just more spending. Nobody could brand him an isolationist for simply wanting to whittle down on bureaucracy and squeeze more bang – literally – for each buck taxpayers spend on the military.