For more than a year, certain members of the U.S. Congress -- Rep. Buck McKeon, and Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte -- aided and abetted by the Aerospace Industries Association, have been beating the drum of fear about the impact of a sequester on our nation's defense. They have all been wrong for more than a year and, for the most part, they have been talking in an echo chamber. Only other "defenders of defense" are listening.
The rest of the country seems to understand that with defense spending at an historic high and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ending, it is inevitable that the defense budget will come down and will do so with little impact on the global dominance of the American military.
This has not stopped the "defenders." Senator Graham went over the top again on Fox News Sunday. According to The Hill, he claimed that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told him on Saturday night that a sequester "will be shooting the Defense Department in the head and we'll have to send out 800,000 layoff notices the beginning of the year."
Panetta probably did not say this. But Graham chose to take appropriate prudence at the Pentagon and spin it into hyperbole as part of the last-minute effort to keep the defense budget away from the fiscal and spending cliff.
Graham is dead wrong. Military personnel are exempt from a sequester, so no uniforms will be affected by these budget cuts. Graham has already been wrong for a year in asserting that 1 million industry jobs will be lost -- contractors are working on contracts that have already been funded, which by law are untouched by the sequester.
I have been saying for some time that the rules of the sequester make it likely that some civilian Pentagon employees could be furloughed for a short time to save resources in DoD's Operations and Maintenance accounts. What Panetta probably said was that if the sequester happens, he will notify all the civilian personnel at the Pentagon that some of them could be subject to furlough, as the department figures out how to work with 10 percent fewer resources than originally requested.
That is a prudent move. If spending cuts happen on Wednesday and are not fixed by the Congress over the next couple of months, there are likely to be furloughs. Estimates differ, but furloughs could affect as many as 100,000 civilian employees, or one eighth of the Pentagon's civilian staff. Not a pretty way to manage, but, with the Pentagon employing more than a third of all the civil servants in the government, inevitable and, above all, manageable.
Graham's last-minute thump on the drum of fear is just another example of the hyperbole with which he and his group have tried to keep defense out of the effort to rein in spending and raise revenues. Maybe he imagines that fear is more effective than fact at this late stage in the negotiations.
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The Washington Post seems to have become the house organ for those who insist the defense budget must be saved at all costs, arguing today that the "fiscal cliff" (which I have described as a fiscal "slide") would be a disaster for defense.
It's a case made by a number of folks, most of them (like the defense industry and the neo-conservative think tanks) cozier with the Iron Triangle than the Post. And, given that we spend more on defense than most of the rest of the world put together and have a global military capacity second to none (no one else even tries to match us), the argument falls on its face.
What is disturbing about the Post editorial, however, is not only that it is wrong on the merits, it is simply wrong on the facts. It claims that sequester would force the Pentagon to "fire" more than 100,000 civilian workers. Presumably, they got that number from a back-of-the-envelope report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
But even the CSBA study acknowledges that "furloughs" are part of the likely DOD response to a sequester. Lay-offs simply cost too much to carry out, and the furlough route, while tough, would be manageable in a department that has the largest back office (proportionally) of 29 countries whose "tooth-to-tail" ratio was studied by McKinsey in 2010. Only the Swiss, who have not gone to war in centuries, have a larger back office.
The Post says training for non-deployed forces would be cut back in a sequester, but training funds are in the most flexible accounts under a sequester, allowing DOD managers to protect training, if they like, and maybe cut less grass at Ft. Belvoir for a few months.
Oddly, the Post says shipbuilding funds would decline 4.5 percent under a sequester, though the Office of Management and Budget has said clearly that the sequester would take 9.2 percent of defense resources. In any case, the sequester leaves untouched current contracts and programs in shipbuilding and elsewhere, with no impact on current production.
Most bewildering of all, the Post argues that management savings could be had, especially in the area of health care programs "which consume nearly 30 percent of the budget." Health care programs are certainly an issue at DOD, as they are for the rest of us. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, health care programs consume 8 percent of the defense budget, not 30 percent. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."
The debate over the defense budget, in the larger framework of the coming month's fiscal negotiations, is going to be interesting. But it is not doomsday for defense. And arguing from strange facts does not make it otherwise.
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While the nation's capital burns with gossip about David Petraeus and his love life, the fiscal cliff is not far away. I don't often wade into the waters of broader federal budgeting, but people are beginning to explore the endgame of this Beckettian drama and a few wonder about its implications for the defense budget. Defense is just a residual issue here; the big top is focused on revenues and entitlements.
Paul Krugman says the whole cliff fracas is a diversion, especially at the leading edge of a recovery; keep spending until the economy is healthy.
Unfortunately, the political system and the march of law and time are inexorable. Those pesky Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year, so something must be done, either to extend them or to split them in two, the way Obama proposes: families with over $250,000 of income get a higher rate -- up from 35 percent to 39.6 percent -- while everybody else keeps the lower rates in the original legislation.
A few other items are lying around, needing urgent repair before damage is done. The Alternate Minimum Tax is not indexed for inflation, so more middle-income families (including yours truly) will get whacked next April, unless the AMT is at least "band-aided" for the 2012 tax year. America's doctors are surely going to lobby against letting their Medicare reimbursements fall, which happens at the end of December. It seems like very few Americans are going to lobby to perpetuate the 2 percent reduction in the payroll tax for Social Security, so maybe that is gone; the same may be true for the extension of unemployment benefits, now that the economy is headed to recovery.
The long poles in the circus tent are sequestration, the likelihood that we will again bump up against the debt ceiling toward the end of 2012 (with Treasury vamping to postpone the problem into February), and the threat of a government shutdown on April 1, in the absence of final appropriations.
The debate is all about these issues, especially whether the White House and the Republicans in the House are prepared to put the biggies on the table: revenues and entitlements. Defense is the side-show, even though the "defenders of defense" have danced up and down for more than a year, trying to make it the main event.
It seems to me likely that one of two scenarios plays out over the next six weeks (or 14 legislative days, if you count that way). Either way, it will be sausage, not a Grand Bargain.
Option One: Dive off the cliff. The president lets the tax cuts expire and sequester happen. The Office of Management and Budget defers the impact of the sequester by apportioning funds to agencies at the level appropriated in the current continuing resolution (which goes until March 27, 2013), so spending does not actually take a whack right away.
The new Congress comes in and starts with the functional equivalent of a clean slate -- tax rates have gone up, the sequester has happened (but the impact is deferred). They start a new round of talks with the president, leading to an agreement that kicks the can down the road. The agreement is a framework on the issues that matter: revenues and entitlements. The framework sets targets for both, raising revenues and lowering entitlement spending projections. But there are no details: these are left to the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee to fill in by a given deadline. Over to you, David Camp and Max Baucus.
In this scenario, discretionary spending is a residual issue. Perhaps the agreement lowers the "caps" set out in the Budget Control Act of August 2011 to make the numbers work. Defense dollars fall below the numbers projected in the current caps. David Leonhardt thinks so; so do I.
Advantages of Option One: it sets new baselines for revenues and for discretionary spending. Anything the next Congress does to change those baselines looks good, because Congress can claim that it lowered taxes (from the new baseline) and that it raised spending (from the baseline).
Disadvantage: The markets may not be happy, sending the stock market into a tailspin nobody wants.
Option Two: this same deal is reached before the end of the December. Disadvantage: the new Congress is cut out and there are no new baselines for revenues and discretionary spending.
Advantage: the markets like the agreement and the recovery appears to continue. It has the same effect on discretionary spending: it is a residual. To get the overall number, defense still goes down below the current caps, possibly even in FY 2013.
Either way, from the view of someone in the defense business, the consequence of defense being a side-show, with reductions needed to get the whole package to line up with the existing or new spending targets, is that defense budgets continue to go down.
Just what I always thought.
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With the end of the election campaign, the season of sequestration and budget deals is upon us. But was sequestration -- the "fiscal cliff" -- and its supposedly devastating impact on defense a big issue in the election itself? Clearly, some folks thought it would be. The Aerospace Industries Association drummed up a major study arguing that going over the cliff could cost a million defense jobs. The National Association of Manufacturers argued the same.
Some analysts took these claims seriously and argued that defense workers could actually determine the outcome of the election in key states. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute wrote: "The simple truth is that Obama lacks many of the electoral advantages he had last time around, so obscure issues like sequestration of the military budget could be decisive in a tight November race. That argues for doing something now to avert sequestration, rather than waiting for action by a lame-duck session of Congress after the election." He pointed in particular to Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania as states that could be swung by defense workers and could, in turn, decide the race.
Senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, and Lindsey Graham actually cooked up a "defense jobs" travelling show around these claims, going from base to base and plant to plant to rally defense workers and communities in the hopes that Mitt Romney would become president and stem the tide of cuts.
I wondered how that actually worked out, so, with the help of my intrepid colleague, Nate Levine, I took a look at where the McCain-Ayotte-Graham side show set up its tent to see how much of a difference it made.
The "defense jobs" circus visited Fayetteville, North Carolina, a state Romney carried 51-48, so maybe defense workers made a difference there -- or maybe not.
But it goes downhill from there. The circus travelled to Tampa, Florida, where the the last statewide count had the president ahead by 43,000 votes. It spent time in Norfolk, Virginia, but the president carried the commonwealth 51-48. It went to Merrimack, New Hampshire, but Obama prevailed there 52-46. And Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, a state the president carried 52-46. And Colorado Springs, Colorado, a state he won 51-47. And Dayton, Ohio, but the whole state went 50-48 for the president. It didn't go to Pennsylvania, but the president scooped that one up, too.
If you focus on some of the key congressional districts where these bases and plants are located, the picture is pretty much the same. The Democrat in Florida carried the district. The Republican in North Carolina won. The Democratic incumbent in Virginia won, as did the Democrats in New Hampshire and Nevada. And the independent in Colorado.
What these outcomes suggest is something I have been arguing for some time, and, by now, it is pretty obvious: This election was not about defense. A very large and expensive lobbying effort to make it about defense failed. It was about the economy, yes, and jobs, and debt, and the deficit. But it was not about defense. That is a pretty clear signal that at least the part of the sequester theater that focused on a "doomsday" for defense was not very compelling when the rubber hit the road. And it suggests that the decisions about a budget deal may include more cuts to defense than anyone projects so far.
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A recent small piece in Stars and Stripes about the Navy Seabees working in Cambodia reminds me, yet again, of the mindless and increasingly risky way the United States is engaging overseas. The Seabees, it seems, have been building schools and health clinics and digging wells in Cambodia, all for the greater good and benefit of the Cambodian people.
Last time I looked, Cambodia was not a combat zone. There is not a question here of only being able to do good works with our soldiers because the enemy abounds and civilians are not safe. That was the reason the Seabees were created -- to provide engineering and construction where only soldiers were safe. They were not created as a foreign assistance force.
We have a foreign assistance force; it is called the U.S. Agency for International Development, which operates with the assistance of the State Department. But over the past ten years or so, we have larded up our military with missions that USAID and State should be doing -- development, governance support, social support, training for ministries, public diplomacy.
Iraq and Afghanistan and those questionable Provincial Reconstruction Teams put military foreign aid on steroids. The assumption that we have to bolster security around the world using Special Operations forces, the Seabees, and other non-combat military capabilities has expanded this type of engagement, with health clinics, schools, and wells (is that the recipe in the Seabee handbook?) springing up in the Horn of Africa and across the Sahel region. And now in Cambodia.
It all sounds very nice and gung-ho American. But it is both the wrong approach to assistance and dangerous to our security.
It is the wrong approach to assistance because, for all the vaunted Seabee capability, they are not a development force; they are not "best practiced" in development. They do not, and cannot put such construction into the context of Cambodia's development and governance needs; they can just sweep in and "do good." But that may have little to do with what the Cambodians actually need; Seabees have no competence in that area. As too many projects in Iraq and Afghanistan show, the short-term effort to "win hearts and minds" backfires when the schools lack teachers and material; the clinics lack doctors and medicines. In other words, the Seabees have no way to ensure the advisability or sustainability of such projects.
And it is dangerous. For decades, Americans have told the militaries of the world to stand down their social and economic programs, their corporate ownership, their civilian work, in their own countries. Militaries should do what militaries should do, not what governments and civil society should do.
By "invading" with militarized "soft power," we are contradicting this message. "See," we are saying, "the military can do all this great stuff." What lesson should the host country draw? First, that soldiers are more desirable for these tasks than civilians, which has the consequence of empowering military forces in countries that actually need stronger civilian government. And second, that the United States engages abroad, yes, but when it engages, it commonly wears a uniform. What does that tell the rest of the world about how, when, and why the United States engages abroad?
For all the smiling children and grateful mothers, expanding U.S. military missions in this way sets the United States on a very dangerous course, putting our long-term security and relationships at risk. Time to skill up and strengthen our civilian toolkit and send our military back to its core tasks and competence.
There was not much substance on the defense budget in Monday night's debate. That's hardly surprising, and the fact that the candidates kept slipping into domestic politics makes it clear that this is not a foreign policy campaign. President Obama mentioned the dreaded fiscal cliff only to say it would not happen. I'm not sure how he knows, since it is the law and will take a congressional deal to avoid. But the general silence on the subject indicates there is no political traction in the topic.
So, I posed a test on Monday for both candidates, and they took an incomplete on most of it. To wit:
1. Romney avoided his notion of spending 4 percent of GDP on defense. No points and a demerit for failing to recognize that defense budgets are going down anyway.
2. He ducked, as well, on whether his plan would add $2 trillion to defense, but he did not deny it, either. So no points either way.
3. They both stayed away from the subject of defense and the size of the GDP. No points.
4. Romney gets no bonus points, which he would have earned, for detailing a budget plan that paid for his $2 trillion add to the defense budget. Is there a plan?
5. A half a point to Romney for adding ships to the fleet and keeping the 100,000 troops, but that was already public. No full point, which he would have earned for a more detailed defense spending plan.
6. Romney loses a point for saying he would buy 15 ships a year, even though we have not done so since 1915.
7. One point loss to Romney for arguing that the Navy would be as small as it was in 1917 (he is actually wrong by about 30 ships). A bonus point to Obama for having the snappiest come-back of the debate.
8. A point loss to Romney for failing to say what Middle East country he would invade with the additional ground force. In fact, he would invade no country -- a new commitment and maybe a bonus point for him.
9. No point loss for calling sequester "doomsday," but maybe a point loss for Romney for arguing that Obama was responsible for a trillion dollars in defense cuts when (a) the first $487 billion do not cut the budget but simply reduce the previously planned growth to a pace that keeps up with inflation, and (b) both these and the $500 billion from a sequester are the result of the Budget Control Act, which the Republican House supported.
10. See point 9.
11. Nobody gets a point for fiscal acumen; neither noted that even after a sequester the defense budget would start to grow, again.
12. Neither candidate noted that the FY 2013 defense budget would still be
FY 2007 level, pretty historically high for defense.
13. Neither candidate gets points for proposing how to fix the procurement system. They didn't even talk about it.
14. Neither candidate gets points for history; neither noted that even with a sequester, the defense budget would decline less that it has in every previous defense draw-down (an average of 30 percent in constant dollars).
15. No points go to either candidate for political courage on military pensions. Neither called for reform of a system that deprives the military of a pension if they have served less than 20 years and then gives them a full pension regardless of age.
17. Can the Pentagon manage weapons programs with 9.4 percent fewer resources? Yes, but neither candidate said so. No points.
18. Budgets limit strategic appetite. Nobody said so Monday night. No points.
19. Neither candidate suggested that we do "less with less" in defense. No bonus points for a realistic military strategy, as a result.
20. Obama gets no points for admitting that there are no budgetary savings from ending the war in Afghanistan. He did not admit it, but, then, he did not claim the phantom savings, either. As I said in the last column: you can't save money from money you never planned to spend in the first place.
We only had a faint echo of the reality we face in defense: we are in a defense drawdown because the wars are ending, the deficit must be lowered, the debt restrained, and the economy fixed. So no final round of applause for finally recognizing reality instead of political pandering.
Well, the Washington Post has misspoken again on defense.
Its editorial today brushes fact aside in its rush to endorse higher spending for defense by capturing 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) over the next 10 years. But the absence of clarity in the Romney tax platform, which makes the math for getting $2 trillion more for defense over the next 10 years difficult, is not the only part of the Romney defense plan that does not add up.
Have no doubt that the Romney commitment to 4 percent means an actual $2 trillion more. That's math, not speculation, though the Romney advisors tried to wriggle out of it earlier this week by saying it would be a slope to 4 percent of GDP. That's $2 trillion on top of the $5.7 trillion already projected for the defense budget by Secretary Leon Panetta, when he sent his budget to Congress in February. That's an increase of 35 percent.
And, pace the Post, that's a big number. Let's remember that the "supercommittee" couldn't agree to $1.2 trillion in budget savings. The Romney commitment would make that challenge pale by comparison. And meanwhile, the Post's editorial board tries to argue that 6 percent of U.S. GDP -- the average level of defense spending during the Cold War -- is not significant. Actually, they're right.
But calculating the share that defense eats of our economy is one of the most meaningless and deceptive arguments ever employed in talking about defense. It only tells you what it tells you -- the share of GDP. It says absolutely nothing about what we actually spend on defense, what we buy with the money, what capabilities we currently have, or what we might require. It's a nonsense number. And it is and always has been a nonsense number to foist on our allies. The real issues are capabilities and strategy, not the share of GDP.
The Post editorial simply runs away from a discussion of capabilities linked to strategy. It mindlessly endorses adding back the 100,000 ground troops currently leaving the force, despite the fact that they were only added to ease rotations in two wars, of which one is now over and the other ending soon. Ground forces always shrink after wars, and they should. The remaining U.S. ground force is larger than any nation's but China -- and China is frankly the last country we are going to invade with ground forces. (Remember the last ground war in Asia?)
Unless the Post's editors are endorsing a U.S. ground invasion in the Middle East (for which there is zero public support), there is precious little threat out there today that demands a large ground force, especially in the Pacific theater to which our attention is swinging. And even in the Middle East, the limits on what any U.S. ground force can accomplish have already been amply demonstrated.
The Post also mindlessly endorses the goal of buying 15 ships a year, despite the reality that we have not bought that many since 1986, not even during the George W. Bush years, not to mention that with the current prices of ships, such a goal is entirely unaffordable. Oh, but we need a 346-ship navy, the Post agrees, endorsing without analysis, the proposal of the Independent Panel on the Quadrennial Defense Review. The need for such a navy is highly debatable. The one we have today dominates far and away the navies of any other power, or any potential adversaries put together, including in the Pacific theater.
And though the Post asserts that this larger ground and naval force better fits current strategic needs than the Panetta projections, it provides no link between that force and any new strategic needs.
The reality is that, today, the United States has today the most dominant military capability on the globe. It flies, floats, and deploys everywhere and has global logistics, infrastructure, intelligence, communications, and transportation. The currently projected defense budgets, even a reduction from those budgets, would do very little to change that global dominance, as no other power, including China, even tries to maintain such a global capability.
There are far more pressing needs, in the civilian foreign policy world and, especially here at home, that could do vastly more to ensure our security than throwing another $2 trillion at the Department of Defense, on top of what is already the highest level of defense spending, in constant dollars, we have had since the end of World War II.
And the fiscal reality is that that defense budget is going to go down, whoever wins the White House in November. The challenge for either Obama or Romney is how to manage that drawdown sensibly. The experience of the 1990s, when the defense budget declined 30 percent in constant dollars, says it can be managed with no sacrifice to our national security. That's the debate we should be having on defense, not a phony argument about shares of GDP.
Last night in the debate, Joe Biden said Mitt Romney's defense plan would add $2 trillion to the defense budgets projected over the next decade. Paul Ryan denied it, but it is the consequence of Romney's promise to devote 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defense. The promise was made in their first White Paper on defense. The goal was "setting core defense spending -- meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development -- at a floor of 4 percent of GDP."
There is almost nothing dumber in defense planning than justifying your defense budget by making reference to the share of GDP it consumes. But that doesn't stop people from trying. Romney advisor Dov Zakheim and his son Roger reiterated the commitment this week .
The Zakheims weasel a little, saying there is no way this will happen right away (although, including the war costs, which is the right thing to do, the budget for national defense, including nuclear weapons, has been well above 4 percent of GDP for the last eight years). It will be a ramp, of course, and there is no way, they say, it will add $2 trillion to the currently projected defense budgets over the next ten years.
Except that it would. By tying defense to GDP, even if you use a slope to get to 4 percent in the projections, it would easily add $2 trillion to current projections, as pointed out by Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security.
There are three problems with Romney's proposal. First, it has nothing to do with national security.The only reason to talk about the share of GDP that defense consumes is to answer the question: Can the economy afford it? As GDP grows, defense budgets become more economically affordable, as long as they grow more slowly than overall production. The share actually fell to less than 3 percent of GDP at the end of the 1990s. It tells you no other useful information in talking about defense or national security.
Second, the only thing the GDP share measures is the growth of GDP, not the growth of defense budgets. The number doesn't tell you anything about what we actually spend on defense, what missions we spend it to be able to perform, and whether it is enough or not. For all of its rhetoric about the Middle East, the Romney speech at the Virginia Military Institute offered no strategic view that would drive a requirement to spend more than $7 trillion on defense over the next ten years. Fear and uncertainty -- even American "exceptionalism" -- are not a policy, and they certainly do not tell us how much to spend on defense.
Third, and most important in the current budgetary dilemma, Romney's defense advisors cannot get there from here. Not without draconian cuts to entitlements (which require legislative changes he cannot get through Congress) and the termination of virtually everything that remains of domestic spending. And he certainly cannot get there and reduce the deficit or debt as a share of GDP. A magic asterisk of growth, stimulated by unspecified tax cuts, is unsound, and certainly a budgetary dodge of the first order.
The litmus test of all those who would tie defense to a share of GDP is to ask them if they would agree to cut the defense budget if GDP declined. Of course not; defense budgets need to be driven by two things: the limits on resources and the demands of national security strategy (and not just one of them -- strategy never drives budgets independent of available resources unless you are at war, and that is virtually over). But maybe, in an election year, it is too much to ask to expect that kind of realism in the defense budget debate.
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John Lehman, one of the leading candidates to be secretary of defense in a Romney administration, has laid down the law. Or, in fact, two laws. Or, to be even more precise, laws that directly contradict each other.
The first law is that it is high time for a military buildup. In an interview with Defense News published over the weekend, he boldly put flesh on Gov. Romney's commitment to buy 15 ships a year (we have been averaging around 8-9 a year for the past 20 years). Lehman not only promised 15 a year for ten years, but he said the goal was a 350-ship Navy (right now it is around 286).
He endorsed building an additional aircraft carrier wing, even though, with one carrier regularly in overhaul, ten is enough. He promised to start a new frigate program (the Navy has no requirement for one), to increase the rate at which the Navy buys submarines and destroyers, to start a completely new missile defense ship, and to buy all the amphibious ships the Marines could possibly want (even though the size of the Marine Corps is planned to shrink over the next three years).
He didn't offer any justification for this Navy expansion (perhaps a former secretary of the Navy doesn't need to). More important, he ducked when he was asked how it would be paid for: "I wouldn't put a number on it until we see what kind of -- we're not talking about we're going to run faster, jump higher, be more efficient." Seems to be a quarrel he has with former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates about being more efficient.
But, as a former DOD official, he knows the problem, and it is about the enormous size of the Pentagon's overhead: "There's just a huge amount of bloat that has developed over the years. The bureaucracy itself has almost doubled what it was during the Reagan administration." The answer, Lehman's second law, sounds every bit as vague as the promises secretaries of defense have made for the last 50 years or more: "We're talking about fundamentally changing the method of doing business." Sorry, folks, no details on this law, just eliminate the bloat.
So his procurement plans would require multiple billions more funding -- he put no number on it, but Romney has talked about keeping defense at 4 percent of GDP, which would add $2 trillion to the current defense budget projections over the next decade. (A totally unrealistic promise, if Romney is going to fulfill his commitment to solve the deficit problem in the same time period.)
An increase of that kind would be a disincentive to any reform plans a Secretary of Defense John Lehman had in mind. Adm. Mike Mullen, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs stated it clearly in January 2011: "The budget has basically doubled in the last decade. And my own experience here is that, in doubling, we've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades."
Lehman is dead right about the bloat. He's dead wrong about the solution; the bloat would continue because, with a lot more money, the services would have no incentive to do otherwise.
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We are living in an era of a defense "draw down." We have been there for two years. But the Defense Department is still framing strategy with little reference to the reality that resources are limited.
The latest iteration of this problem is the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations released, to little comment, on September 10. It represents an effort led by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to put military flesh on the bones of the DOD strategy document released earlier this year.
And it has the same weakness as that strategy. It does not fully recognize that resources and strategy, money, missions, and capabilities are intrinsically linked. In an era of draw down, it is critical to recognize that link by making choices, setting priorities, and analyzing risk.
Sadly, the Concept does none of that. Instead, it calls for "globally integrated operations," complete with the military capability to conduct operations anywhere, anytime, against any potential threat, known or unknown. In the end, without saying so explicitly, it is a plea for more money.
The Concept is built around the notion that "the geography of threats and crises grow more complex," leading to a security environment "likely to be more unpredictable, complex, and potentially dangerous than today." How that squares with the chairman's view, in the same document, that "the world is trending toward greater stability overall," is not clear. But "uncertainty" is the only clear potential adversary described in the document.
So we don't know the real adversary from the document. And we don't know much about current U.S. military capabilities to deal with adversaries, either. This is a common failing of Pentagon strategy documents. They rarely acknowledge that the U.S. military is globally capable today, the only force that can deploy, sail, and fly globally. The only one with global logistics, intelligence, transportation, communications, and infrastructure. No other country comes close; no other country even tries. By not recognizing our global military superiority, the Concept becomes simply a plea for more.
And the document does not help set priorities in any way. There is no hierarchy of challenges, problems, or threats. The JCS says, "it will be impossible to predict with certainty when, where, and for what purpose Joint Forces will operate." In other words, in a world where uncertainty is the enemy, the U.S. military needs to be prepared for any eventuality. Again, we have here an implicit justification for more, with no priorities.
Most seriously, aside from one brief sentence about the need to "adapt to the nation's fiscal environment," the report is fiscally unconstrained. There is no discussion of what such an adaptation might mean in terms of choices among capabilities, hardware, or people.
That is not a very realistic approach to operational planning. The nation's defense budgets have always been resource-constrained; capabilities and resources are intrinsically bound to each other in defense planning. Ask Eisenhower, who knew defense choices had to be made, however persuasive the service chiefs were trying to be. Ask Secretary of Defense Mel Laird, who oversaw a draw down. Or ask Gen. Colin Powell, who takes pride in having managed the draw down of the early 1990s.
With or without a sequester, we are in a defense draw down era, the fourth since the Korean War. The Pentagon knows this, industry knows this, even Congress knows this (they have agreed to cut the defense budget for the last two years running). Only the planners seem to have missed that point.
There is one more important weakness in the document. It briefly mentions the relationship of military planning to our broader toolkit of international engagement. American statecraft engages the world in a variety of ways -- many, if not most, of which are non-military. The military is not the only, nor necessarily the lead element in U.S. global engagement.
National security strategy, arguably, stands above the military, above the secretary of defense's strategy document of last January, and well above this Concept. All the agencies involved in our international engagement, including the military, are support functions for that strategy, not the other way around. The Concept seems to argue that other institutional "partners" need to be integrated into the Concept, which sets national security strategy on its head, rather than integrating the military in support of broader strategy.
While the new Capstone Concept contains many useful, if general, observations about how to build future capabilities, it does not pass this reality test. A draw down is a time for making choices, not a time for broad brush concerns about "uncertainty." Uncertainty is always with us, but it doesn't provide a guide to decision-making.
Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.