Why the Military Has a Budget Message Problem
President Obama's fourth secretary of defense soon will be taking the reins at the Pentagon where discontent has been brewing over spending cuts, expanding missions and the growing realization that the generals’ stop-the-sequester campaign has been politically ineffective.
The military message has not resonated, although that is not entirely the Pentagon’s fault, says retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who is a former director of force development on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Defense officials have built the bulk of their case against the sequester on the premise that abrupt and steep cuts threaten military "readiness." The problem is that few people outside the military understand what that means and, therefore, do not take it seriously. "Readiness to do what? We need to be able to answer that," Flynn tells National Defense in an interview.
Defense leaders struggle to answer that central question, and that undermines their case for bigger budgets, he says. Further, the military is not able to correlate its funding requests with a national strategy of what the United States expects the armed forces to do. As a result, generals’ claims of being under-resourced are hard to demonstrate, he adds. The typical response to the readiness question is that "we need to be ready in case somebody calls," Flynn says. "But what that suggests is that there is a lack of an overall strategy. What do we want to do in the world?"
During frequent appearances in front of Congress, top defense officials have sounded alarms that spending cuts will weaken the military. How exactly this would affect national security is unclear to many lawmakers and to the public, Flynn says. "We keep telling them that we have to be ready do to everything."
The argument needs to be better informed, he says. "You have to be able to articulate, with this much money, this is what I can and can't do." Generals talk about "taking on additional risk" as forces are downsized and equipment programs are delayed or terminated, but that concept also is hard for many lawmakers to grasp, especially fiscal hawks who regard a 10 percent cut as reasonable and manageable.
"The key part that's missing in the debate is 'what do you want me to do?" Flynn says. "Nobody has articulated this well."
In the meantime, the military continues to fulfill its duties without noticeable financial struggles, which perversely undermines its case for bigger budgets. The public doesn't see that "anything is breaking," he says.
The fuzziness of the readiness argument could continue to hamstring the Pentagon as it prepares for another round of budget battles. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's successor will be stepping into a perfect fiscal storm as the department waits for Congress to pass a 2015 appropriation, deals with the possibility of across-the-board cuts in 2016 and scrambles to fund long-term programs to equip the military to fight future wars.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledges that the messaging has been ineffectual. "We would go over to Capitol Hill and try to articulate risk, what risk are we taking because of our inability to build sustainable budgets over time. ... I swung and missed,” he said this month at the Defense One summit. “Nobody really took notice. ... I have to adapt my narrative to explain to the American people why they should be concerned."
The Obama administration’s defense budget request for 2016-2020 exceeds the congressionally mandated spending limits by $110 billion. If Congress rejects that proposal and enforces the caps set by law, military budgets would go up by $43 billion over the next five years. The Pentagon has insisted that even that increase would put the military in a bind because it does not cover the rate of inflation.
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph Dunford, describes the military's budget problem as akin to living from paycheck to paycheck. It gets by, but at the cost of deferring equipment maintenance, home station training and modernization.
"We are meeting the combatant commanders' requirements today," Dunford said during a panel discussion this month at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. "The issue is that we're paying for today's readiness by taking risk in modernization and infrastructure. That's tomorrow's readiness."
Flynn notes that the traditional definitions of military readiness do not, by themselves, explain how spending cuts might reduce the combat power of the armed forces.
The Pentagon defines military readiness as the "ability of military forces to fight and meet the demands of assigned missions." It has four key elements: personnel, equipment, supply and training. But these measures of readiness are subject to interpretation, Flynn explains in a white paper published by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "In the case of training, individual mission performance qualifications can largely be objectively measured, but unit mission training readiness is much more subjective," he says. "We must constantly remind decision makers that it is the training of our force, people and units – and not superior equipment – that has allowed us to deal with unexpected security challenges."
Some experts have suggested that it is time for the Defense Department to rework its definitions of readiness and how it allocates resources toward readiness.
"When we think about military readiness we should be thinking about how well our forces are able to do their job," writes Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.In a study titled, "Rethinking Readiness," Harrison contends that there should be a better way to report readiness inputs. Current inputs, like flying hours or tank miles, are treated like outputs, he contends. The budget debate, says Harrison, focuses on the resources applied to readiness, not the resulting readiness. Ways to measure outputs exist, but are not necessarily credible, he adds. "I am not questioning the integrity of commanders or their professional military judgment. I am simply saying that self-assessments are inherently subject to bias."
Harrison recognizes this is easier said than done. "Understanding how to apply resources most effectively to achieve the desired output is a matter of resource management and more science than art."
For now, the Pentagon's best hope is a political solution that would de-trigger the sequester. Such a scenario today seems unlikely. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently predicted that it would take an extraordinary national security crisis on a par with the 9/11 attacks for Congress to roll back the spending restrictions it passed in 2011. “I don't see a path where you're going to get bipartisan relief on the Budget Control Act caps,” he said.
The idea that political deals are the answer to the military's budget issues is "unacceptable," asserts Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense and until recently on the short list to replace Hagel.
Flournoy says she was taken aback by Cantor's comments. "We shouldn't wait for a horrible thing to happen to wake us up. It's not acceptable to say the politics won't work."
Like Flynn, she would like to hear a broader discussion about military global responsibilities and how much it costs to meet them. "Any discussion about strategy has to start with a conversation about the role of the United States in the world," she said at the Reagan library. "There is a mismatch between resources and what we want to do. ... We are accepting risk that we shouldn't be accepting because we are underfunding the military."
National security should not be a political football, she adds. "Rather than having a national discussion on where we need to be as a nation, as soon as someone stakes a position they're attacked for tactical gain. We need to create a safe space where people can have a civil debate."
Some pundits predict aRepublican-led Congress next year might give the Pentagon a break from the sequester simply for political expediency.
“Next year, the GOP House and Senate are very likely to work together either to eliminate or, more likely, modify the sequester,” writes budget expert Stan Collender, of Qorvis MSLGroup. More likely, he adds, Congress will “raise the annual amount that can be spent by the Pentagon without triggering the sequester reductions.”