Who let the chiefs out?

The Joint Chiefs have spoken, and have told the Congress that "we are on the brink of creating a hollow force." Them's fightin' words. The mantra of "hollow force" goes back 40 years to the "bad old days" of the 1970s, when we transitioned from a conscript to a professional military. Turbulence there was, in those days. But the allegation, shall I say, rings "hollow" today. It smacks more of budget politics than truth.

It seems to be part of an orchestrated campaign, following the January 1 agreement, to stop sequester or at least draw a line in the sand for a Congress which seems increasingly benign about the consequences of the across-the-board cuts that might happen March 1, if there is no spending agreement.

But it is not truth. We are nowhere near a "hollow force" today. Au contraire, after more than 10 years of war, we have just about the most ready, sharpest point of the military spear we have seen since the military went professional in the 1970s. Returning forces will tell you; they are not tired, wrung out, depleted. They are ready, well-tuned, and probably better prepared for the conditions of the new warfare of this century than ever before.

And they are numerous, too. We've been out of Iraq for a year now and Afghanistan is coming down fast, even faster than expected. We increased the ground force by about 100,000 to deal with rotation in those countries; we are coming back down from that rotational buildup, but will retain sizable forces.

So the chiefs have offered absolutely no evidence that a readiness crisis is at hand, because it is not at hand. What they are really saying is "don't cut, please don't cut our budget." Budgetary politics as normal.

And there is a kind of budgetary sleight of hand going on here. They were careful in their letter to say that there might be a cut of more than 20 percent in operating budgets as a result of a sequester and extending the current continuing resolution through the whole year. But check the elusive, always important issue of the baseline from which they are measuring: that 20 percent is from the operating budget request the president sent up last February for this fiscal year.

But the president's budget requests sought an increase of nearly 10 percent over the previous year's funding level. So part of that 20 percent, nearly half, is just not getting what you asked for, but dealing with level funding. The services don't like that; no wonder they protest.

Methinks they doth protest too much. Add to that legerdemain the reality that we are about to reduce forces in Afghanistan at an accelerated pace. Overseas Contingency Operations, which funds Afghanistan, is two-thirds operating funds. And these funds are entirely fungible with the rest of the services' operating funds. In the last couple of years, Congress has found billions of unspent Afghan operations dollars to use for other purposes, due to underspending there. I have no doubt they will find the same this year. This will provide more flexibility for the operations cuts the chiefs are screaming about.

This is a management problem, not a readiness crisis. The last decade has given us the most over-ready military we have ever had. What the services are actually doing -- what Deputy Secretary Carter asked for last week -- is nothing more than due diligence and the first step toward sensible planning for a drawdown. This is hyperbole and budget politics, but it is not reality.

Service Chiefs Letter to Senate Armed Services Committee

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Behind the Rhetoric

The Pentagon starts to manage the defense drawdown.

As I have noted many times over the past three years, we are in a long-term drawdown at the Pentagon; the Department of Defense budget will continue to head south. But for those three years, the DOD has been resisting this notion.

From the Pentagon's point of view, the $487 billion the secretary took out of the FY 2012 10-year projection for defense budgets (which flattened but did not cut the defense budget) is the bottom line; anything else is "doomsday" for the defense strategy he articulated last year and for our national security.

Secretary Panetta continued this hyperbolic rhetoric about defense cuts last Thursday in his joint press conference with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Panetta warned that "the most immediate threat to our ability to achieve our mission is fiscal uncertainty, not knowing what our budget will be, not knowing if our budget will be drastically cut, and not knowing whether the strategy that we've put in place can survive...All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness."

This politically-intended hyperventilation was accompanied by a memo to the military services the same day from Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking them to draft plans to cope with lower levels of funding this year.

These spending cuts, Panetta and Carter both said, could result from either the looming sequester or from the extension through the rest of the year of the continuing resolution currently governing the defense budget.

In reality, the Carter memo was the first sign of recognition inside the Pentagon that there is no uncertainty here; a defense drawdown is truly underway. While the rhetoric reeked of hyperbole, the memo looked like exactly what DOD should start doing as the money drifts away. It focuses on one of the Pentagon's most pressing long-term fiscal issues: the bloated (now that Chuck Hagel has koshered the term) "back office" at DOD.

Specifically, the memo asks the services to prepare for lower funding levels by freezing civilian hiring and considering furloughs for up to 22 days for some civilian staff. It asks the services to consider releasing temporary employees and imposing hiring freezes. It also asks the services to cancel maintenance activities at the depots that repair and overhaul military equipment.

It suggests that non-essential training and conference activities be suspended as part of these plans. It also suggests the services curtail travel, maintenance of facilities, and such administrative expenses as supplies, IT, and the ubiquitous Pentagon and military ceremonies.

And it set operational priorities. Protect funding for war operations, wounded warrior programs, readiness, family programs, and activities associated with the Pacific pivot strategy.

Operations is one of the key areas the Pentagon needs to focus on in a drawdown. It eats up about a third of the Pentagon budget, is over-staffed, very difficult to track, and has proven almost impossible to control in the past. And while furloughs would be an appropriate (and likely) short-term response to budget cuts, a longer-term strategy would be to gradually thin the civil service by attrition.

Gee, this sounds familiar. This is not the first time that DOD has had to plan for a short-term funding shortage. In the summer of 1994, with refugee operations ramping up in Goma and an intervention in Haiti in the planning stages, DOD was running out of funds.

In anticipation, we had to do all the things mentioned above, especially in the operations accounts: slow down training, consider furloughs, defer maintenance, slow the speed at which equipment went through the repair depots.

We even had recourse to the famous Feed and Forage Act from Civil War days, allowing the military to spend funds without an appropriation. Then, in the middle of the next budget year, we refilled the pots with appropriated funds, in the middle of an overall defense drawdown.

So it is not a crisis, it is sound contingency planning. And it is an excellent first step toward bringing budget and management discipline to the Pentagon. We are in a drawdown today. Fiscal and planning prudence is a necessary and good thing.

The services might even discover in the process of preparing these plans that there are temporary civilian employees they don't really need, activities that can slow down for good as we come out of Afghanistan, maintenance that can be deferred because it is not needed for a smaller force, and civil service and military positions that are unnecessary (over a third of the active duty military never deploys).

It is a good idea to start with sweeping out the cluttered back office. But the memo barely scratches the surface on the other challenges in a drawdown. It barely mentions contracts. It only says protect procurement if it is directly related to combat operations (sensible) or tied to the Pacific pivot strategy (dangerous, as it tempts the services to call every program part of the pivot).

And for those contracts supposedly endangered by a sequester, it only asks the services to minimize disruption and added costs, which suggests that procurement contracts are not seriously threatened by sequester. That's consistent; sequester would not affect funding already tied to existing contracts. But drawdown planning will have to put hardware choices on the table, a next step that will be confronted in the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review.

And the memo does not deal with military personnel issues at all. Active duty forces and their benefits (as well as those for retirees) are untouched by sequester. But this third rail will have to be dealt with in a drawdown, including shrinking the force further (including jobs in the back office), and revisiting the healthcare and retirement systems.

Sequester is not doomsday, as the Carter memo makes clear. There is a lot of room at DOD for this kind of fiscal discipline. With luck and planning, the next secretary can make a silk purse out of the sequester sow's ear.

Robert Ward/DVIDS