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Defense Budget Cuts: Strategy, Schmatergy
The politically safe consensus on Capitol Hill is that the Pentagon budget should not be sheltered from the painful choices the nation must make to reduce its crushing debt.

But that is as far as it goes.

Beyond the platitudes about military spending being "on the table," nobody has a clue how to even begin to debate — let alone decide — what to cut. Some lawmakers want to attack “mission creep,” others want to go after overpriced weapon systems, others are aiming for the bloated Pentagon bureaucracy.

Any responsible legislator who may attempt to make sensible tradeoffs between defense spending and deficit reduction is left rather hopeless at this point because there is no framework — aka national strategy — against which to make rational decisions.

The exasperation was palpable last week during a hearing of the House Budget Committee, where members were seeking expert guidance on how they should set priorities. Lawmakers on the committee — a highly influential panel that is supposed to guide the federal budget debate — had lots of questions about how military funds are spent, and how they are often wasted, but found no satisfactory answers.

Muddying the defense budget deliberations are several factors: An ideological guns-vs.-butter divide, conflicting philosophies on how to shrink government while maintaining a large military, and, most importantly, the inaction by the Executive Branch. President Obama asked for $400 billion in spending cuts, but offered no clues on where to find the money. The secretary of defense was directed to conduct a comprehensive review in order to identify areas that could be cut, but those recommendations are likely to be imprecise and, depending on the nature of the proposals, could set off even more bickering and new rounds of congressional hearings. 

Pro-defense GOP lawmakers remain unconvinced that any cuts are justified. They blame the $1.4 trillion federal deficit on domestic social program and entitlements, and don’t believe that Defense should be penalized too severely. Many Democrats and deficit-hawk Republicans, meanwhile, seem to fret about how they can possibly cast votes that make tradeoffs between defense spending and debt reduction in the absence of broad strategic guidance.

Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle are posing elemental questions: What do we need? What do we cut? What can we do without? What do we need that we don’t have?

The answers from the witnesses at the July 7 Budget Committee hearing spanned the full spectrum. Gordon Adams, professor of foreign policy at American University and a former White House budget official overseeing national security, assured the panel that the Pentagon’s budget of $700 billion could be safely trimmed over the coming years by as much as 15 percent without in any way jeopardizing U.S. military dominance. The reason is that too much of the defense budget pays for unnecessary programs, irrelevant missions and bloated bureaucracies that don’t contribute to the nation’s security.

Because the United States overspends on defense, he argued, the military has become the proverbial hammer that makes every problem in the world look like a nail.

Terrorism and cybersecurity, for example, are not predominantly military issues and yet the
Defense Department has taken a leading role in addressing them. Another concern that drives defense spending, the rise of China, is a legitimate issue, but not a “threat against which we need to throw significant defense resources,” Adams said. Too many defense dollars are being unduly allocated to preparing for future counterinsurgency missions and dealing with fragile states, he said. “We're structuring, exercising, forming, training our military today … as if we were going to pursue major, large-scale insurgency operations on a global basis.” That effort is a waste of money, Adams stressed. “If we look at the global scenario, we don't see that as a likely exercise of American military forces. If anything, it's not likely to be well received given the experiences that we've had in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Pentagon’s budget also is being drained by unnecessary personnel, he said. There are 340,000 people doing “commercial” functions. There are 560,000 uniformed service members who never deploy because they are tied up in the administration of infrastructure and other desk duties. “We have a serious problem of tooth to tail,” said Adams.

Only when United States begins to demilitarize its approach for handling every crisis will it be able to reduce its debt substantially without compromising its defense posture. “We've had a tendency to focus just on military capability as what defines American leadership in the world,” he said. There is a “deficit in this country of thinking about strategy in the broader sense, so that when we produce strategic documents they tend to be documents that come from the Department of Defense.” The Pentagon, he noted, has become the “dominant strategic thinker for the government of the United States.”

Every country “measures its risks and challenges, evaluates what risks it's prepared to accept, weighs its defense commitments in the context of its broader domestic internal economy, its capacity to produce, its involvement in the global economy, the stability of its currency, its trading relationships. That's grand strategy,” Adams said. “We haven't done that.”

This has been a trend for more than two decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, said Adams. “It's quite stunning when you think about it. Until this past year, there has not been a strategic planning document of any kind from the Department of State, from the Agency of International Development. And while there's been a national security strategy from the White House, it has followed most of the time the Defense Department's strategic planning document, not preceded it.”

Former Republican senator from Missouri James Talent, a defense industry adviser who opposes cuts to the Pentagon budget, agreed that the absence of “strategic clarity” is getting in the way of a cohesive plan to tackle the debt. “The lack of direction from the highest level of civilian authority since the Cold War ended through now, almost four presidents, is extremely frustrating,” Talent told the Budget Committee.

But Talent, like several current GOP lawmakers, opined that the way to curtail the national debt is to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not defense. “Defense has been a declining portion both of the GDP and the federal budget,” said Talent. “If you resolve the broader issues between the mismatch between revenue and entitlement programs, there's going to be enough money to pay for defense.”

It would be misguided to cut defense when the military services are in dire need of modern equipment, he said. “The Navy is the smallest it has been since 1916. The Air Force is the smallest and the oldest it has been since the inception of the service. The Army has missed several generations of modernization.”

A cacophony of views about how to tackle defense spending and the political stalemate in Washington over the debt crisis are likely to lead to the one outcome that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he feared the most: Math wins over strategy.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen predicted that much when he told reporters last week that the “budget train” is moving faster than the Pentagon’s strategic review. That means the $400 billion in cuts the president requested will become a free-for-all, rather than a measured, strategy-driven downsizing exercise. The House already passed a budget for 2012 that trims $9 billion from the president's request. Democratic Senate leaders, meanwhile, are proposing nearly a trillion dollars worth of defense cuts over the next decade as part of a larger bargain that would avert cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

Even before a single dollar is cut from the current budget, the Pentagon already is facing a fiscal train wreck, as its costs keep rising faster than inflation.

The Defense Department's current forecast projects that the base budget will grow about 6 percent in real terms over the next five years, from $536 billion in 2011 to $569 billion in 2016. But the Congressional Budget Office estimates that, in order to sustain the current force and programs, funding would have to grow about 11 percent in real terms in that same period, or almost double what the Pentagon estimates. The rising cost of military health care, military and civilian compensation, operations and maintenance activities, unless cuts to the size of the force are make, will see a 42 percent growth from 2011 to 2030. Those accounts alone will consume about 71 percent of the budget in 2030. CBO’s conclusion: The same force will continue to cost more and more every year.


Re: Defense Budget Cuts: Strategy, Schmatergy

Why do we still have 30,000-plus troops in South Korea?

Why do we need a heavy Army division, plus tac air, in Germany (and the UK)? Does someone think maybe we'll STILL have to fight the Russians in Europe someday?

Does DoD need over 800 facilities all over the world?

Does anyone have any idea why DoD's "teeth to tail" ratio is still so out of whack?

Could DoD TODAY pass an independent financial audit?

Do we REALLY need 10 fleet carriers (especially when we have several big-deck amphibs), and a Navy that greatly overmatches any reasonally conceivable adversary?

Does the Air Force NEED a new bomber, when it has THREE types now with projected useful lives to the 2030-2040 period and increasing survivability with self-protection equipment and effective stand-off weapons?

Couldn't the Air Force safely reduce its number of tac air wings, especially with all the new targeting pods and PGMs it has?
Finally, how about withdrawing from the Afpak QUAGMIRE, and also pulling any remaining forces from Iraq unless actually asked to stay?

We will soon be forced to cut the federal budget roughly in half, either before or after a currency crisis. When THAT happens, all this confusion about how and what to cut will be quickly resolved. Why not do it NOW when there's still some time to make reasonable choices? Does anyone think the public will put up with draconian cuts in benefits while allowing DoD to do business as usual?
Monnie at 7/13/2011 7:35 PM

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