Heritage Foundation Jumps Into Defense Budget Debate

By Sandra I. Erwin

As Washington once again heads toward a protracted budget impasse, a new report from the conservative Heritage Foundation seeks to pour a fresh load of data into the contentious debate over U.S. military spending.

The 300-page “2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength” rates the capacity and readiness of the U.S. military to combat global threats. It is intended to be an annual reference document like the Index of Economic Freedom that Heritage started publishing two decades ago.

Heritage officials unveiled the index Feb. 24. Their goal is to use the data in the study to bolster the case for bigger defense budgets. The report says the current U.S. military force is “adequate” to fight one major regional conflict while “attending to the various presence and engagement activities that keep it so busy, but it does not meet the standard of two major regional conflicts.” Recent funding cuts and reductions in the size of the armed forces are “serious problems,” the study contends. “Essential maintenance is being deferred; fewer units — mostly the Navy’s platforms and the special operations forces community — are being cycled through operational deployments more often and for longer periods; and, old equipment is being extended. … The cumulative effect [is] a U.S. military that is marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.”

Ongoing discussions over defense spending, Heritage analysts argue, confuse lawmakers because there is no consistent frame of reference on which to measure the true status of military capabilities. The administration’s quadrennial defense reviews are dismissed as political documents that are constructed to fit the president’s budget priorities. The counterpoint studies by a congressionally appointed “national defense panel” usually propose huge increases to defense budgets and, too, are discredited as fiscally and politically unrealistic. 

The index is intended to influence defense budget decisions at a time when military spending has become subsumed into a larger political battle over government spending, taxes and entitlements.

Not only is this a partisan struggle but there are also sharp divisions within the Republican Party between the pro-defense establishment and the anti-spending hardliners.

Heritage sought to strip its military index of political rhetoric, said Dakota L. Wood, a former Marine Corps officer who is a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation. “We want to provide hard evidence of what military force we need and how much it would cost,” he said. “This is an academic effort. We're being transparent in our methodology.”

The study recommends the U.S. military be organized and equipped to fight two wars simultaneously, Wood said. “We should have enough forces to fight a war and backup forces in case another crisis flares up.” There will obviously be budget limitations, he noted. “We'll never be resource unconstrained. … But we should assess risk” when cuts are made. “By building a well researched argument over a number of years we can present a very compelling case for increasing budgets,” Wood said.

“Measuring hard combat power in terms of its adequacy in capability, capacity, and readiness to defend U.S. vital interests is hard, but not impossible,” he writes in the index. Defense budget requests are not fiscally unconstrained nor are they developed in a vacuum free of competing policy priorities, he observed. “All of this illustrates the difficulties and need for exercise of judgment in assessing the adequacy of America’s military power. Yet without such an assessment, all that we are left with are the quadrennial strategic reviews — which are subject to filtering and manipulation to suit policy interests — annual budget submissions which typically favor desired military programs at presumed levels of affordability and are therefore necessarily budget-constrained; and, leadership posture statements that often simply align with executive branch policy priorities.”

The index has three sections: "An Assessment of U.S. Military Power,” "Assessing the Global Operating Environment" and "Assessing Threats to U.S. Vital Interests.”

The current political climate does not bode well for defense hawks, however. The 2011 Budget Control Act’s stringent spending caps are the law of the land. The administration has requested a $534 billion base defense budget for 2016 that exceeds the spending ceiling by $36 billion. Other than a repeal of the law, the only mechanism available to pro-defense lawmakers are fiscal sleight of hand solutions such as adding more money to the war budget that is not subject to the caps. Securing more money for defense will require an agreement to also lift the spending caps for nondefense agencies. Such a deal might be doable in the Senate but would be a tough sell in the House where there is a stalwart bloc of deficit hawks that would rather cut defense than allow increases to nondefense spending. Pro-defense conservatives so far are not optimistic that a bridge can be built across the yawning GOP divide.

Undoing the spending caps would take action from the very top. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would have to make a major push to get the votes. They will need the support of Budget Committee Chairmen Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., both of whom are deficit hawks. If the GOP brings enough of its own membership onboard, it will need to compromise with Democrats on how to pay for the additional defense and nondefense spending.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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