A madman Pentagon: my WotR contest submission

Richard Berger; War on the Rocks Defense Spending Submission; 2 Nov 2013. War on the Rocks is an independent publication focusing on defense- and war-related issues from the perspective of those who know what they’re talking about. The contest information can be found here, and you should probably bookmark WotR and/or grab their RSS feed, given the consistently of superb writing.

A Madman Pentagon

The 2013 Strategic Choices and Management Review essentially casts Department of Defense (DOD) budgetary choices as current capacity vs. future capabilities. The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 isn’t going anywhere, and DOD will inevitably find itself making difficult choices. These difficult choices need not also be stupid choices, but the provision of sequestration that forces indiscriminate cuts virtually assures such an outcome. To be clear: Congress can have the extra savings from sequestration, but only if DOD can spread those savings amongst accounts and over time however it likes. In order to avoid being further hamstrung by Congress, DOD should go on the offensive: announce deep, crushing, strategically suicidal cuts in either operations and management (O&M) or acquisition and procurement. By effectively matching targeted political pressure to a moment of Congressional and Presidential weakness, DOD can achieve mission success in amending the BCA toward greater flexibility this winter. From there, the defense community can achieve mandated savings in a responsible manner.

Given that most reasonable plans include a mix of cuts across accounts and services, we should identify the reduced account fungibility and temporally restraining effects of sequestration as the main impediments to intelligent restructuring. DOD’s objective should be pressuring Congress to amend the automatic reductions to allow for flexibility in distribution of cuts between 2013 and 2021. Optimally, DOD should apply such pressure during the January 2014 budget considerations—waiting until autumn 2014 may prove dangerous. The following proposals appear slightly psychotic and possibly self-defeating, but may present the only way to prevent DOD’s lurching from crisis to crisis, forever uncertain how long the next continuing resolution will last and unable to apportion cuts over time. I must stress that these offerings aren’t meant to enact lasting changes—they are chosen on the basis of maximum political effect.

Further O&M cuts comprise the first tactical option. O&M—the day-to-day costs of training and operating the U.S. military—bore the absolute brunt of sequestration, taking a $20bn hit in FY13. The effects—apparent and likely—are horrifying to attuned defense observers, but failed to register with Congress. Outside the defense community, people don’t know or care that U.S. success in the Gulf War and 2003 invasion of Iraq derived in great part from National Training Center activities. Fuel supply shortages don’t make headlines, but they’ll sure ruin your armor or airmobile exercises. In effect, DOD must credibly convey the crushing effects of, for example, another $15-20bn in lost O&M funding. SECDEF Hagel should go on the O&M warpath, enlisting the President, if possible, to highlight the expensive, grueling day-to-day work that creates and maintains American military primacy. CSAR Odierno’s statement that a mere 2-3 Brigade Combat Teams are at full readiness could serve as a fine template to expand upon. With similar demonstrations of incapacity amongst all services, DOD could break through to Congress on a targeted front. Accuracy and reality need not apply to DOD pronouncements—they certainly don’t apply to recent Congressional behavior. The O&M cuts need never be enacted—ideally, the simple threat of further O&M reductions should prove decisive.

Conversely, DOD could simply announce its intention to immediately cut anywhere from three to six major procurement or acquisition programs, both legacy and future. Again, these cuts aren’t optimized for the future strategic outlook—they should be attuned to political realities. Certain Senators and Congressmen will prove particularly influential in the impending budget fight. Certain military programs are located in certain districts. The idea isn’t to punish any particular Congressman or program—just to spark a discussion between Congress and the White House about amending the Budget Control Act toward flexibility. And since it’s almost the holiday season, why not have each service pick its own contribution? It’s the ultimate joint mission.

Of course, DOD repeatedly implemented similar plans to raise the alarm and prevent the “across-the-board cuts” provision from becoming law. Clearly, all such attempts failed. Yet the conditions for similar campaigns are uniquely auspicious in the next two to three months. With Congressional midterms in 2014, a wounded GOP, and a President desperate for any positive press, incentives should be adequate for an amendment to erase the indiscriminate nature of sequester-level cuts—a feature universally abhorred. Both parties have reached a nadir in popularity; if DOD misses the early-2014 opportunity, it may never receive another opening to achieve the flexibility it needs.

In the end, my plan fundamentally trades immediate risk for future flexibility in the way DOD can apportion its budget to maximize the U.S. strategic position in the next 5-10 years. The per annum or aggregate savings of such a plan are immaterial; rather, the hope is to give other defense planners greater latitude, an unquantifiable (or priceless, if you’re feeling generous) benefit. Far more intelligent people than myself have offered solid, competing plans for the next decade’s defense structure and appropriations. CSBA, for example, recently compiled a useful primer capturing wide array of options, and numerous individuals have argued for the efficacy or uselessness of specific programs. But no plan currently on offer can realistically achieve its goals unless DOD first achieves the necessary flexibility to enact a restructuring that best matches the U.S. strategic situation. DOD should get it over with now, or the next iteration of War on the Rocks essay contests will be considerably more depressing.

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