The Ripon Forum

Volume 48, No. 2

Spring 2014 Issue

The Fiscal Fantasy Behind U.S. Defense Strategy

By on July 17, 2014 with 0 Comments

It’s time for Congress to wake up and make sure our budgetary resources match our security needs

by KORI SCHAKE

Kori_SchakeRepublicans ought to own the issue of responsible defense planning. We are a party that has long stood for a strong national defense, accountability in government, and concern for the nation’s fiscal outlook. These issues should come together in developing a defense program that achieves all three of those necessities. We should hold the commanding heights. But we do not.

We do not own the issue of responsible defense planning because we have not embraced a program that brings our spending into line with our revenue. We have shied away from tackling the cause of our deficit spending: entitlements. We cannot cut discretionary spending enough to surmount the obstacle that entitlement spending creates — zeroing out the defense budget in its entirety wouldn’t get spending out of the red. In the depths of the Euro crisis, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg summarized a challenge that applies equally to us: “We all know what needs to be done, but we don’t know how to get elected after we do it.” The American political party that can build consensus around a solution will dominate the political landscape.

The Congress is allowing itself to be painted as the irresponsible party on defense, when in reality it is the Executive branch that deserves the blame. But by refusing even small reductions in the rate of increase in pay and retirement and health benefits to our military, we are making the all-volunteer force unaffordable. If we are going to expect the military to absorb the magnitude of reductions envisioned in current law, we ought to give them the managerial latitude to develop a cohesive defense program. That means allowing them to close bases, retire cost-inefficient platforms, determine the right mix of pay and incentives, and reform the acquisition process.

By refusing even small reductions in the rate of increase in pay and retirement and health benefits to our military, we are making the all-volunteer force unaffordable.

The 2011 Budget Control Act reined in discretionary spending and incentivized a broader budget balancing agreement with the threat of sequestration. Inability of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to achieve that broader agreement ought to have alerted the Defense Department to the importance of developing a defense program that would not exceed the BCA top line, since doing so would trigger sequestration and dramatically reduce their leeway in programming their spending.

But the Department of Defense instead has submitted three budgets in excess of the BCA top line. The Office of Management and Budget guidance instructed departments to ignore sequestration in their budgeting, and DOD accepted that politicized guidance. The White House chose to exclude personnel costs (which represent fifty percent of defense spending) from sequestration, forcing all cuts into the procurement and readiness accounts. These are not immutable laws of nature, they are political choices, and they exacerbated the problems.

It needs to be said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff allowed themselves to be enlisted by the White House in the political gamesmanship of sequestration. As a result, they bear some culpability for the tumult in the defense program. General Dempsey developed a defense strategy he claimed could not be carried out with any further reductions; now that further reductions have been taken, he has not developed a more resilient strategy. The Chiefs decried sequestration’s damaging effects without taking responsibility for their part in triggering it or developing alternative strategies and force structures to buffer against its effects.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff allowed themselves to be enlisted by the White House in the political gamesmanship of sequestration. As a result, they bear some culpability for the tumult in the defense program.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review ought to have been the vehicle for such exploration. Secretary Hagel claims the QDR “matches our strategy to our resources,” but it doesn’t. The QDR force is unaffordable without $115 billion more than the top line legislated in 2011 — and that is in addition to the $80 billion annual fund of war operations and separate from the $26 billion “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative” submitted as a wish list along with the budget itself. That completely negates the $113 billion in cuts that the President’s budget “imposes.” So they’re actually cutting nothing. Hagel says “it would have been irresponsible not to request these additional resources.” It was irresponsible not to develop a strategy consistent with available resources. This QDR has failed in its fundamental purpose.

The most important part of the QDR is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s assessment. U.S. code requires that the QDR identify the budget and force structure required to accomplish them at a “low to moderate level of risk.” General Dempsey concludes that current strategy can only be achieved at the maximum risk consistent with the legislation. That is significant, even if he is only whispering fire during a fire.

Dempsey also cautions that “we must avoid procuring expensive and exquisite systems that can be neutralized by adversaries with far less investment,” but that is the force this Quadrennial Defense Review would produce. Because DOD did not conduct a serious QDR, the responsibility for evaluating how different choices might aggravate or mitigate risk will be left to an independent review panel that Congress wisely wrote into the law. It will fall to them to try and meet the standard President Eisenhower set out of providing the country both security and solvency.   RF


Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She previously served as Director for Defense Strategy and Requirements on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

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