Pentagon Advisors Worry That Defense No Longer Treated As Serious Business
The enormously complex multitrillion-dollar business of defending the United States has been turned into a silly game of political football, laments a former Pentagon official.
“I have never been more alarmed about the state that we’re in than I am now,” said John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense and president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Long-time Washington insiders like Hamre are aghast by the political shenanigans that have paralyzed the U.S. government this past year and now threaten not just the Pentagon’s budget but its ability to plan for future crises.
Politics, under normal circumstances, makes for an entertaining spectator sport. But it stopped being fun when failure to solve serious problems, such as fixing the nation’s debt crisis, became an acceptable outcome, Hamre said in a Dec. 2 speech at CSIS. “Politics now needs the problem more than it needs the solution,” he said. It was stunning realization last month that, by law, the Pentagon would have to cut spending by a trillion dollars in January 2013, after a congressional panel failed to reach a deal over how to reduce the nation’s growing budget deficit.
“Politics has always been partnered with governing, until now,” said Hamre. He decried the absence of coherence and competence in both parties, which have turned the business of national security — which historically has been kept above the political fray — into an ideological blood sport.
An “existential battle between the parties” is destroying the foundation of the U.S. government’s, and especially of the Defense Department’s “planning process,” said Hamre.
Hamre suggested that the current chaos — caused by not knowing how much money the government will be able to spend a year from now — might be tolerable in non-defense agencies but is completely unacceptable in the national security business.
“Ninety percent of the [non-defense] rest of the government does one of two things: write a check to a beneficiary or write a check to an employee,” he said. The Defense Department has unique status, he said. “We build things, we run things, we invest in things, we manage 70 years worth of technology. … We run the largest day care center in the world, the eighth largest grocery chain in the world, the largest school system, a fleet of 350,000 vehicles. It is a massive enterprise,” he said.
The cloud of indecision that is now hanging over Washington, and will continue to hover until after the 2012 presidential elections, is putting the process of managing the defense enterprise “seriously at risk,” said Hamre.
The problem is not the budget itself but the inability to do long-term programming that is hurting the Defense Department, he said.
“Coherence comes from the programming process, not the budgeting process,” he said. “That is where you establish your long term planning. … It requires a predictable top line for us to do this.”
The situation is maddening, he said. “The law of the land says there will be a sequester. But every politician says we’re never going to do that. How does the department run this?”
President Obama said he would veto any attempt to suspend the automatic sequester cuts of $1.2 trillion in federal spending, half of which would hit the Defense Department. At the same time, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is saying that the sequester will “crush and hurt American security,” said Hamre. “Those two messages don’t reconcile very well.”
A sound plan for military spending and strategy should be more important than getting through the next election, said Hamre. “We depend on our government to be competent and coherent,” he said. “That is now at risk.”
Nobody in Washington believes that the automatic cuts will occur, said David J. Berteau, senior vice president and director of the CSIS international security program. Obama’s veto threat is just part of the political game, Berteau said. The president has to send a message that he is serious about reducing the deficit in order to avert a U.S. Credit downgrade by the rating agencies. That is the last thing the president wants during an election year, said Berteau.
But despite predictions that sequester cuts will never happen, the news is bad for the defense industry, Berteau warned. Program managers who oversee weapon systems at the Defense Department soon will know the levels of funding they can expect for fiscal years 2012 and 2013. But most PMs will be fearful of committing funds as long as the specter of sequestration exists. They will most likely decelerate programs in order to buy time, Berteau said. That will affect procurement projects more so than service contracts. “The hardware side of the business will see a pretty dramatic impact in fiscal year 2012,” he said.
Pentagon officials have stated publicly in recent months that they do not intend to target contractors’ profits, but that they want industry to cut costs. The reality, said Berteau, is that the “way to get after your cost is to go after your profit. That is a statement the Pentagon denies, but the management of contracts is consistent with that policy.”
The Pentagon, even with a smaller budget, should be able to manage what are expected to be moderate budget cuts, Berteau said. The problem is that there are few leaders in the building who know how to match resources with requirements, especially after a decade of double-digit budget growth when the department did not have to make tough choices.
In the years following the post-Cold War defense downturn, 50 percent of the budget cuts fell on procurement programs, said Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. A similar pattern can be expected for the coming decade. “This will be done program by program,” he said. Big-ticket programs, such as the Joint Strike Fighter or the Navy’s attack submarine, will probably not be terminated but rather slowed down, he said. The programs that could suffer the most are the smaller systems, such as trucks and ammunition, that don’t receive the same visibility, media attention or have as big a constituency in Congress.
James W. Dyer, a senior adviser at CSIS and former congressional staff director, predicts that Congress and the administration over the coming year will do what they do best: Avoid difficult decisions and buy time until the elections. “Kicking the can down the road, we’ve all learned, is an acceptable legislative tool,” Dyer said. “The Pentagon’s posture is going to be to hunker down.”