Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy weighed in Tuesday on the debate over the defense budget. While her comments are useful, her recommendations would not really help the Pentagon deal with reductions that could be 20 percent below the spending levels it had projected for the next 10 years. The problem is that to cut defense, you need to actually cut defense -- including things Flournoy says should be untouchable.
First things first. Flournoy writes that we have a terrible post-war record on defense drawdowns. "Almost all have resulted in a ‘hollow force' -- too much force structure with too little investment in people, readiness and modernization," she writes. Secretary Gates said the same thing; so did Secretary Panetta. Fortunately, this is not right; fortunately, because it is possible to manage a drawdown successfully.
As someone who was there for the last one, in the 1990s (as was Flournoy, actually), I can vouch that the management of that drawdown, including readiness investments, did not lead to a hollow force. The drawdown of the 1990s was begun by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell. It established a smaller force, invested in the readiness of that force, and, even with a "procurement holiday" (appropriate after Reagan had filled the services' hardware coffers in the 1980s), continued to equip it well. (The C-17 and F-22, for example, both moved along to production.)
The 1970s drawdown did have a readiness problem, exacerbated by the transition from a conscript to an all-volunteer force. It remained, however, a globally dominant force. And the Eisenhower draw-down did not sacrifice readiness; it chose to base U.S. defense strategy on strategic nuclear capabilities, with a smaller ground force. But it was ready, not hollow.
Regardless, Flournoy's prescriptions for managing the drawdown now under way will not get us to where the budget is going. She says past drawdowns failed "because the easiest way to reduce Defense Department spending quickly is to enact across-the-board cuts in military end-strength, operations and maintenance, and procurement -- solving the budget problem on the back of the force rather than on the department writ large." The problem is that these are precisely the categories of spending that must be drawn down. They constitute, after all, 96 percent of the defense budget. If you take those accounts off the table, it is not clear what is left -- they are "the department writ large." That's why they are cut in a typical drawdown -- and why they should be cut now.
Flournoy's suggestions for where to cut are good, but they won't get us very far toward managing the drawdown:
In the end, a smart drawdown requires that we address those parts of the budget that Flournoy takes off the table. We need a smaller force, procurement priorities, and serious constraints and priority-setting in the operations and maintenance account. Now that would be a realistic drawdown!
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Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.