Panetta (and others) on the Budget

Posted: August 19, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , , ,

Theoretical defense cuts, ranging along a line from “significant” to “crippling,” are consuming most of the worry-oxygen in the Pentagon. 

Along that line of concern, new SecDef Leon Panetta does not want his legacy to be the guy who stood idly by while the defense budget was used as America’s bill-payer.  From AOL Defense regarding a “conversation” at National Defense University including Leon Panetta:

Panetta was more subtle and single-minded. Although he comes from the same political background – White House insider and Congress – his answers were shorter and more softly stated, but they were directed at one and only one objective: defending the Pentagon’s budget.

[Panelist/moderator Frank] Sesno started the "discussion" asking about budget cuts beyond the $350 billion the Pentagon has already committed to over the next 10 years, saying "What’s really at stake?" Panetta whacked the softball question hard: "Very simply, it would result in hollowing out the force," and, "It would break faith with the troops and with their families," and, finally, "It would literally undercut our ability to provide for the national defense."

The article’s author and “defense budget expert,” Winslow Wheeler, then proceeds to excoriate Panetta for having gone native, much to the joy of the “bureaucratic moguls at the Pentagon.”  Who is right, Panetta or Wheeler (who comes out favoring large DoD budget cuts), and how do we know?  Wheeler attempts to build a case why the defense budget can easily be cut down to $472 billion.

Using the Pentagon’s "constant" dollars that adjust for the effects of inflation, that $472 billion level would be more than $70 billion higher than DOD spending was in 2000, just before the wars.

But where is Wheeler’s context on the issue?  Oh, that would be the ‘just before the wars’ time when DoD was getting off the proverbial mat, having served as the 1990s bill-payer for the peace dividend of the post-Gulf War I, right?  More from Wheeler:

The problem is not money. Under this so-called worst case scenario, the Pentagon would be left quite flush with money, plenty of it in historical terms. (Emphasis added)

The problem is that the Pentagon, as it exists under its current leadership, is incapable of surviving with less money. They quite literally do not understand how to face a future where the DoD budget exceeds any and all potential enemies by a multiple of only two.

The phrase “in historical terms” is an attempt to wave off the fact the United States has a more professional and technology and training dependent military than at any time in history.  Consider the all-volunteer force and its benefits (and costs); consider the benefits (and costs) of advanced technologies like stealth and enabling space systems; consider the emergence (and costs) of unmanned systems.  Finally, consider today’s multi-polar threats and the post-Cold War service the United States has provided as the world’s policeman.  These are all decisions that have been made and responsibilities that have been taken on without duress by U.S. military and political leadership. So if you generally get what you pay for, Wheeler’s conclusion would be that the U.S. is over prepared (although over regulated would be a more apt description). 

If you’ve served in the military, you know that DoD is capable of wasting plenty of money; some of it is self-induced but much of it is top-down inspired.  However, a huge definitional problem is that “national security” is usually (and incorrectly) equated to “defense spending.”  Notional non-example one: if the U.S. spends four times as much on defense as China but China only pays its people one-tenths of what Americans receive (all other things being equal; they’re not, I know), who is really getting better defense “value” for their spending?  Notional example two: if we pour 10 percent of the defense budget into counterinsurgency-type capabilities which improves our security by one percent (assuming such things can be quantified correctly), is this a wise investment?

Another very real (and historical) problem is one of process: DoD is constrained by the budget process to form and submit longish-term (five to six years) spending plans, replete with numbers and projections, which the White House then incorporates into the President’s Budget and provides to Congress for their use as a point of departure.  This baseline-using budget process tends to perpetuate itself unthinkingly and can serve as an impediment to innovation, as do rules like not being able to ‘roll-forward’ unexpended monies, which encourages defense spending for the sake of preserving the baseline.

But the root problem is not a leviathan defense community and the money it spends, but rather a leviathan governmental community and the methods it uses (to include a lack of meaningful metrics) as well as the priorities it fails to establish.  Simply stated, the multi-year DoD plan, program, budget, and spend process is both detailed, yet ultimately, undisciplined.  After all, the smaller bureaucracy (defense) is merely following the patterns of behavior established, mandated, and demanded by the larger bureaucracy. 

Finally, although the “hollow-force” of the late 1970s was viewed as the bad old days, World War III did not occur.  Yes, there were disconcerting happenings (like Russians in Afghanistan, pathetic U.S. readiness rates, and the open national sore of the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran) the United States, its allies, and the world all survived.  Is the “hollow-force” level of risk regarding defense spending what we should be willing to return to?  Could such cuts instead force DoD to become smarter and more nimble, benefiting national security and the American citizen?  Or will something entirely different happen?

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