Fourteen years ago, George Wilson, a long-time defense
journalist, wrote a great book on defense politics called This War Really Matters. Wilson was not talking about the Balkans,
or Rwanda, or Iraq. He was talking about the war the services really care
about: the one over their budgets.
He must be enjoying himself today. Although that war went
quiet for the last three months, it has been renewed in earnest in the last two
weeks as President Obama appears to have given the military permission to
bombard Congress with the worst set of horror stories we have heard about our
national security since the Soviets got the bomb, in the hopes of scaring them
into making a deal on sequestration.
On Wednesday, Secretary Panetta kicked his rhetoric up a
of dire consequences for military readiness if sequestration were to happen on
March 1. More importantly, for the last 10 days or so, the military services have
been allowed to fire their briefing charts at will (like this one, for example). A blizzard of terrifying data
is now raining down on an unsuspecting
Congress, like an artillery barrage of PowerPoint, to force the GOP to
retreat to the negotiating table.
If you don't think that's what this battle is about, consider
that the White House, I am told, is giving no close scrutiny, no wire-brush
scrub, to the services' readiness briefing charts that are being so
enthusiastically spread around the Hill and the media. Check out the silence in
non-defense agencies, all of which are either allowing or being asked to allow,
DOD to take on point in the budget wars. They haven't got the firepower the
Nobody has time to give each of its shells the close and
critical scrutiny they deserve. But as scary as they may be, their connection
to reality -- and to math -- remains tenuous.
One says that readiness in Afghanistan is at stake if the
Army doesn't get an additional $6 billion for operational funding. How did the
Army discover a new $6 billion requirement when congressional appropriators
have found an equivalent amount of under-spending in the same war during each
of the last two years -- money to which the Army has helped itself in order to fund
other pet projects?
Another puts military pay on the block next year because there
is budget uncertainty this year. How can it be that military personnel next year
will get a raise lower than the rate of inflation because we have to conserve
resources, but we don't talk about the growth in warriors' allowances (housing
and subsistence), which make up nearly half a soldier's income and will increase
beyond the rate of inflation? That latter increase will make up for the
smaller-than-usual pay raise, but we didn't hear about it -- presumably to
prompt the ground forces into the budget battle.
Some of the shelling is coming ahead of schedule. How is it
that the military services envision dire options of every imaginable kind, but
provide no analysis of what they decided to protect, especially the Army's
sizable bureaucracy. What budget numbers are being protected by these draconian
cuts? Why have the services' briefing charts been distributed and leaked all
over Washington when the sequester options reports weren't due to the secretary
And some of the firing is indiscriminate, even "friendly
fire." How did it happen, as the secretary himself said at Georgetown, that the
Pentagon has been merrily spending on operations for the past four months "on
the hope that the 2013 appropriations bill will be passed" at the higher level
the administration had requested? On the hope? Didn't they notice that the defense
budget has already gone down 10 percent in real dollars since fiscal year 2010?
Defense just happens to have been a big item in the larger conflict over the
federal budget for a couple of years. Has Panetta been living under a rock?
"Silly us," the secretary said. Yes, indeed.
It has been blindingly clear for a year that sequester, if
it happens -- it probably will and it will probably be fixed retroactively with
deeper cuts to defense than the current budget projects -- will impact the
operational accounts more than anything else. Not hardware contracts, not
military personnel (whose pay and benefits are exempt). And it is clear that
operations is where the "bloat" that Chuck Hagel has famously spoken about is
located. It's time to manage that problem, sequester or not.
Remember, we spend more on defense than any other nation on Earth
and more than most all other nations combined. Each service's budget is bigger
than the entire military budgets of any other country. Even the smallish Marines
and Special Operations Forces are bigger, each, than the militaries of most
countries. We are overwhelmingly superior in every aspect of the military arts.
And we overspend on defense because we do not control hardware costs, because
we have the biggest (proportionally) "back office" of any major military, and
because our military benefits continue to expand.
We have been fighting this Pentagon budget war, battle by
repetitive battle, for more than two years now, with the same shots fired over
and over. For more than a year, Secretary Panetta has been saying he had to cut
$487 billion out of the defense budget, without ever noting that this was a
reduction in the projected growth in the defense budget -- not a budget cut.
Every month, a Pentagon spokesperson says, "We get it wrong every
time we do a defense drawdown and hollow out the force" when it is untrue. Only
the drawdown of the 1970s caused severe readiness problems. The one Secretary
Panetta (and I) participated in -- the 1990s drawdown -- left behind a
dominant, global military force that performed just fine in 2003 in Iraq. And
it cost half as much as the current force.
But repetition overwhelms the facts, and a barrage of data
bewilders the adversary.
Now we are at sequester Gettysburg, and the Obama
administration has rolled out the big guns. Only the Department of Overwhelming
Force can run a domestic budget campaign. And it is aimed at the real enemy:
the Republicans in the House and Senate. Most of Panetta's speech targeted Congress:
Whose fault will it be if the United States suddenly has to withdraw its forces
from the world because the GOP won't negotiate?
The endgame is to get the Republicans to the table -- a
Republican Party that is divided on the defense issue and clearly motivated to
get domestic spending down. The services are doing their best to terrify the
Republicans into cutting a deal, and the administration is giving them free
rein to make their case by any argument necessary, no matter how exaggerated. Like
the bard said, "our revels now are over"; we have come to the crunch point. It
is not about readiness abroad, it is about the readiness to deal at home.
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