Acquisition Chief: Military Should Speak Out Against Budget Cuts
Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, advised pushing back against political considerations that could pull $1.2 trillion from Pentagon coffers over the next decade.
“Maybe we ought to be a little more vocal about this,” Kendall said May 15 to a ballroom full of troops and industry officials at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.
“We know how to suck it up," he said, describing the no-complaints, hard-charging attitude embodied by special operations troops. “We know how, when times are hard, to just put our heads down, keep going and muscle our way through it. That attitude may not be serving us very well right now."
Kendall used a single word to describe the fiscal outlook facing the military: depressing. The current fiscal year, he said, is a “damage limitations exercise that we’re just trying to get through.”
“I don’t see [fiscal year] ’14 being any more reasonable,” Kendall said.
The Defense Department issued its budget request for fiscal year 2014 without considering the impacts of a possible sequestration, he said. If the across-the-board cuts are allowed to occur, it will erase about $40 billion per year in defense spending, for which the department has not planned. The political logjam is one Kendall thought he would never see, especially because politicians from both parties are scoring points at the expense of national defense.
“We’re living in a world that I really did not expect to have to live in,” he said. “My opinion was that the center would hold. There was enough support on both sides of the political aisle that national security strategy was going to be protected. That was the assumption that went into the sequestration deal — the assumption that there was a consensus about the importance of national security.”
Sequestration — as has been admitted by those on Capitol Hill involved with the passage of the 2012 Budget Control Act that enacted it — was designed to be “so crazy that no one would let it happen,” Kendall said.
The cuts have not yet taken hold, but the looming austerity is already being felt throughout the military, he said. Kendall likened the situation to a slow, steady rain rather than a “hurricane that arrives and is a cataclysmic event.”
“The water keeps dripping and dropping on us and the water level keeps rising,” he said.
Many of the impacts are secondary consequences not readily visible to the public eye or to lawmakers, he said.
“We’re not flying airplanes. We’re not training people. We’re not steaming ships. We’re not doing exercises with ground forces,” Kendall said. “Some of the things we’re doing today, if we keep doing them for a couple months, will set us back a couple of years."
Airfield tarmacs are not being repaved or repaired when needed, he said. Government-owned buildings remain vacant because they cannot be brought up to fire codes or there is no money for furniture to fill them, he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military faces a host of global threats both from peer nations and non-state actors. China and Russia have no compunction about selling advanced munitions to rogue factions or nations that would seek to harm the United States, he said. Both countries are also steadily building their military capabilities with investments in training and technology, he said.
“While we’re decreasing our defense budgets, they are increasing theirs and they are doing it, in both cases, reasonably smartly … and they’re moving forward while we’re moving the other direction. I’m not very happy about that situation.”
Dealing with many of those threats will fall to Special Operations Command troops. The Obama administration has placed an emphasis on SOF as the nations draws down from Afghanistan and focuses its attention on the Asia-Pacific region. Those troops, hundreds of whom listened to Kendall's comments, should impress to lawmakers that national security should not be a bargaining chip, he said.
The skills and infrastructure that is being lost are not things that are easily or swiftly recoverable, he said. Cutbacks have begun affecting troops at the tip of the spear — some are not optimally prepared to deploy to combat zones, he added.
"I think we need to let people know how we feel about what’s happening," he said.
Photo Credit: Scott Rekdal / NDIA