Advice to the Pentagon: Stop Fiddling, Come to Grips With Impending Fiscal Doom
A strategic “roles and missions” review is under way at the Defense Department, prompted by President Obama’s goal to cut $400 billion from national security spending by 2023. That review is intended to identify programs and functions that the Pentagon would have to give up in order to reduce expenses.
But as the federal debt crisis mounts, the Pentagon may come under increasing pressure to make even deeper cuts, beyond the relatively modest $400 billion over 12 years. A number of deficit-reduction blue-ribbon panels have called for at least a trillion dollars in defense cuts during the next decade.
In the coming defense downturn, the “bottom is not defined,” said Sean O’Keefe, CEO of EADS North America, and former secretary of the Navy. He fears that the current Pentagon review will be muddled by inside-the-building politics, and could fail to deliver a cogent rationale for sustaining $700 billion annual defense budgets.
“There are competing views on strategy and what the force structure ought to be,” O’Keefe said this week a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference in Washington, D.C.
There is also a sense that it is still business-as-usual at the Pentagon. In aspeech to the CSIS conference earlier that day, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn delivered a keynote speech in which he mapped out a future where the U.S. military would have to be ready for any conceivable form of warfare, from low-intensity counterinsurgencies to high-end battles against well-armed adversaries. Nothing in that speech signaled that the Defense Department is ready to give up any turf.
Not only are there internal disagreements within the Pentagon and the Obama administration over what the military services will be doing in the future, but factions within Congress also will be pushing individual agendas. “In Congress, you have 535 individuals and every one of them thinks they’re in charge,” O’Keefe said. “If you don’t have some benchmark to work with to start the discussion,” the Pentagon will lose control over what gets cut in future budgets.
“If there is no strategic framework, that is what will happen: The process takes over,” said O’Keefe. Defense leaders should come up with a reasonable strategic framework as early as possible that they can sell to Congress, he said. “Absent that, it is going to be the programmers and bean counters driving the train to meet a number.”
A coherent message from the Defense Department is “missing right now,” said John J. Hamre, president of CSIS and former deputy defense secretary.
“What are we really trying to plan for, as a Defense Department, that is good for 20 years?” he asked. “Are we going to get the hell out of these wars and never fight them again? What are we preparing for?” he added. “That, I think, is the work for the next six months.”
There has to be a sense of urgency about articulating a plan for the future of the U.S. military, because increasingly the American public is losing patience with seemingly endless wars and gridlock over how to move forward, Hamre said.
The ongoing roles-and-missions review also might be an opportune time to reassess the Pentagon’s costly personnel and entitlement benefits programs, said retired Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, former Air Force chief of staff. One of the reasons why Pentagon spending has ballooned so quickly over the past decade is the cost of the all-volunteer force, he noted. The force, at the size it is today, is “unaffordable,” said Fogleman.
When the Pentagon’s budgets were slashed after the end of the Cold War, the all-volunteer force had been in place for about 20 years, so the “real impact had not yet started, and had not been felt,” Fogleman said. “This issue only has been attacked on the margins.” Returning to a draft system is not the answer, he said. But the Defense Department soon will need to begin downsizing the force if it is to meet budget goals. The solution might be a smaller active-duty force, and better use of the National Guard and Reserves, he suggested.
Sooner, rather than later, the Pentagon also will have to figure out what to do about retiree benefits, said David S.C. Chu, former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “It is not an efficient compensation system,” he said.
“Our entitlements have been untouchable,” Fogleman noted. He predicts an ugly free-for-all over retiree healthcare, as lobbyists already have mobilized against any effort to reduce Tricare-for-life benefits.
“I would hope someone will step up and say, ‘let’s do this right,’” said Fogleman.
Despite the Pentagon’s poor track record in fiscal discipline, the nation’s debt crisis could prove to be the catalyst this time around, he said. “As a nation, we have to figure out where our appetite is. … Are we going to intervene every time there is an incident or are we going to let the world sort out the smaller issues?”
These are uncomfortable questions that cannot be deferred much longer, he said. “Every time we’ve done these [reviews] in the past 25 years, we start with some lofty strategy review that ends up in a cut drill.”