Pentagon Needs a New, More Credible Defense Strategy, Panel Recommends

By Sandra I. Erwin
In a bid to persuade lawmakers to cancel draconian budget cuts, Pentagon leaders have argued that the Defense Department is unfairly being pickpocketed in the name of deficit reduction.
That point could be proven, as defense spending makes up only 20 percent of federal spending. Even if the entire Pentagon’s budget were wiped out, the federal deficit would still continue to rise as a percentage of GDP.
But with no appetite in Congress to tackle the other 80 percent — mostly healthcare and social-safety programs — the Pentagon’s budget is likely to be treated as a convenient piggybank, experts warned.
The Pentagon has made itself an easy target of budget hawks because its leaders and President Obama have failed to produce a convincing blueprint for how the military should be postured for the future, concluded a panel of former defense officials and analysts.
The “pivot to Asia” military strategy that Obama introduced in January 2012 was designed to guide the Defense Department as ittransitions from a decade of massive spending and two large-scale conflicts to a future of reduced budgets and no foreseeable major wars.
The strategy has been rendered irrelevant by the political standoff that began in August 2011 and continues to hold federal agency budgets hostage to Washington partisanship. For the Defense Department, a prudent approach would be to recognize this reality and begin to put forward a reasonable downsizing plan, said a new report byThe Hamilton Project, a policy group led by former government officials that promotes economic growth.
The administration also missed the mark with the January 2012 strategy because it did not set priorities, make choices or identify what areas within the defense budget could afford more or less risk, said Kori N. Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who authored a study for The Hamilton Project that was unveiled Feb. 22.
Failure to define a bottom line for the future military has left the Pentagon vulnerable to more budget cuts, Schake said during a panel discussion at The Brookings Institution. Other than calling for an end to ground wars, the strategy does not set clear parameters for the use of military force and does not tackle the Pentagon’s rising personnel and overhead costs, she said. The strategy “forestalled the public conversation, and it forestalled the congressional conversation that we are now racing to catch up with.”
Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, who participated in the Brookings panel, pushed back on the criticism of the Obama strategy. She said the guidance was only intended to be the “first bite of the apple." The administration anticipated that the strategy would need to be adjusted, she said, if budgets were cut below the levels set in the Budget Control Act of 2011.
“We still don’t have clarity on the resource picture,” Flournoy said. “Everybody understood that it was the beginning of a longer process.”
Flournoy did acknowledge that the administration deliberately was trying to protect the Pentagon’s budget and did not want the strategy to be seen as a how-to guide for downsizing the military.
“There was a reason” for not getting ahead of the debate, she said. “It’s because of the way it plays on Capitol Hill” where everyone tries to “pocket” defense money without providing alternatives, said Flournoy.
“I agree that we need a larger strategic conversation,” she added.
Politicians have been asking what “fair share” of deficit reduction the Pentagon should be responsible for, noted Cindy Williams, a defense analyst at the MIT securities studies program and a former assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office.
The discussion on defense spending should not be about the Pentagon paying its fair share, but about the role the military fulfills in national policy, Williams said. The Pentagon continues to put forth strategies that are unaffordable, she added. In a study for The Hamilton Project, Williams suggested the military should resize the force in accordance to a more traditional definition of the role of the armed forces.
“The strategy of the future is going to have to be significantly more constrained,” she said.
The current military is a jack-of-all-trades that has overreached into areas that are not related to national security, she argued. “We have to get back to the old-fashioned definition of national security. It’s not about making sure other countries don’t have civil wars, It’s not about making sure other countries are democratic. Those might be esteemed, important, goals for the United States for other reasons, or for humanitarian reasons, but they are not central to national security.”
The “most important” job for next secretary of defense should be to define a new military posture, said former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch. The Pentagon needs a “defense posture that is more affordable. … That means it will have to cut forces, reduce op [operations] tempo, personnel and acquisition costs.”
Retired Navy Adm. Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations, who also contributed to the Hamilton study, cited three key problem areas that the Defense Department must tackle. It needs a military force that is better designed to face modern security challenges, a more efficient acquisition system with a more diverse industrial base and more cost-effective pay and benefits structure.
Without fundamental reforms in those areas, the Pentagon will have a tough time adjusting to leaner budgets, he said.
The budget process today is “broken,” Roughead said. “There is no process that is taking the nation’s military through an assessment of what is the environment, what is our strategy and are we resourcing it properly?”
Cutting spending is made all the more difficult by a Pentagon establishment that still operates as if it were still fighting the Cold War, said former Senator Sam Nunn, D-Ga, who chaired the Armed Services Committee.
“We have not adjusted to a post-Cold War world,” Nunn said. After the Soviet enemy vanished, the Defense Department started grabbing every problem it could find and treated it as a vital interest to the United States, he said. There has to be more restraint, he said. “America has got to rethink what we’re doing.”
On one extreme are people who believe the military can do everything. On the other end are isolationists who want the military to do nothing. “There’s a lot in between that,” he said. “We need to develop other tools of government” to carry out noncombat missions that the military has taken on over the past decades. The other arms of government, however, are not prepared or resourced, he said.  
Flournoy, who often sided with the interventionists during her tenure as undersecretary of defense, voiced support for the administration’s goal to keep the military engaged globally as much as possible. “We are facing interdependence,” she said. “Our ability to grow our economy depends on what happens in East Asia and other places.”
The United States should not be the world’s policeman, she said, but “we still have a unique role and unique responsibilities to protect our interests, maintain our alliance commitments, ensure we help our partners build their capacity to address their challenges." That requires U.S. assistance, she said. Flournoy agreed with Nunn, though, that the nation needs a “more selective and smarter policy of engagement.” She also endorsed the idea that other branches of government should be taking over some of the work. “We are not going to have a successful system if one part of the government is on steroids and the rest is on life support.”
The Hamilton Project’s recommendations are the latest set of studies to be piled on numerous other blue-ribbon and think tank reports unveiled in recent years on how to made defense “affordable” and reform U.S. policies for employing military force.
Whether any of these meticulous studies reach congressional ears and influence decision making remains to be seen.
If a Feb. 13 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee provides any clues, the prospect for a rational debate on defense spending looks bleak.
During the hearing, Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the HASC intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, questioned the need for a defense strategy given the chaotic state of the world.
“Do we need a strategy?” Thornberry asked a panel of expert witnesses at the hearing. “A lot of what you all have talked about is the incredible amount of uncertainty in the world today. And I think everybody can agree we're not going to be able to predict this conflict or this situation,” he said. “My perception is that largely we lurch from crisis to crisis, making decisions as we go. My perception is we didn't do that in the Cold War. There was at least an outline of a strategy that was generally followed.”
Frank Hoffman, senior research fellow at the National Defense University, insisted that, yes, the Pentagon badly needs a strategy.
“You need to communicate to the American people what treasure they're putting up and why, to sell it and make it sustainable,” Hoffman said. “You need to articulate to future aggressors what those capabilities are, and you need to sustain them over a period of time,” he said. “I don't know any way of doing that without a strategy.”
Hoffman cautioned that a strategy should not be a “dog's breakfast of everything you want to do just piled up. It's focused effort.”
Narrowing the duties of the Defense Department, to be sure, will be difficult as the Pentagon is not one to turn down missions, noted David Berteau, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
When the nation needs something done, he said, “the military will say every time, ‘send me; I'll get it done to the best of my ability.’”
Much of the debate about the direction of the national security establishment is a “fight between the past and the future,” said Berteau. “And in that fight the past is much more powerful than the future. It has all the champions. It has all the advocates. It has all the four-stars. They're all lined up. … We probably do need a strategy even though ultimately it's the budget that matters.”
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy, War Planning, Government Policy

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