The Defense Budget: The Quick (Cuts) and the Dead (Programs)

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Defense cuts are going to happen so the real issue becomes one of “Which programs, which years, how much, and how fast?”  Although the plan-program-budget-spend process is continual and ongoing, large bureaucratic organizations like DoD possess a particularly poor ability to respond to rapid change. Will the budget cutters will bear this in mind?

The traditional defense cut model has been this: study with an electron-microscope; measure with a micrometer; mark with a grease pencil; cut with an ax.  The first three steps are largely overcome by events (or at minimum, significantly compressed) based on the recent debt ceiling agreement, so we’re effectively down to the cut with an ax step; hopefully the ax will at least be sharpened.  As a wise man once said, “You can have it right, you can have it fast, or you can have it pretty: pick two.”

The article Think Before You Cut, with its “ten simple rules” to slash the DoD budget “without endangering U.S. national security” has kind of a pop culture log-line ring to it, similar to rules for dating my daughter, seven brides for seven brothers, or one is the loneliest number.  Feel free to read it at your leisure, or should you choose, take the shortcut and just read on.

Regardless, ten is too many rules to have (even if that guidance was violated with last year’s Nine Seismic Shifts To Improve The Department of Defense).  The human mind is better at remembering things in a group of five (plus or minus two).  So how about four simple guides for defense cutters?

First, what are the national security outcomes we are looking to achieve?  Without understandable, measureable, and achievable outcomes, DoD has the “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path may take you there” (or per Buckaroo Banzai, “Wherever you go, there you are”) problem.

Second, budget cutters need to understand their own biases, intellectual shortcuts, experiential gaps, and unexamined assumptions.  Knowledge is good and wisdom is better; self-awareness is essential.

Third, how much risk are the cutters willing to assume?  The greater the risk they’re willing to assume, the greater the cuts that can be laid in.  But the risk has to be understandable and should be measurable (or at least describable).

Finally, budget cutters need to tell DoD what to stop doing.  Budget cuts should be explicitly linked to mission cuts, that is, clearly articulated and quantified things that DoD will stop doing/slow down on including diminished humanitarian relief, reduced flying hours, reduced deployments, less training, travel restrictions, and declining mission-ready rates.  The tendency in boilerplate national security documents is to say we’ll do everything and when the cuts come in, to ‘spread’ them across the board.  Conversely, when new missions are added, they come in the form of supplemental budgets rather than being included in a baseline.  In an era of massive budget cuts, good judgment will takes the form of funding-it-or-killing-it.  

People (military, civilians, and contractors) are paid to perform military missions, build tanks, ships and airplanes, travel, sustain equipment and infrastructure, launch rockets, make charts, and more.  And at the end of the day, defense cuts will be all about cutting people. 

  1. […] The Defense Budget: The Quick (Cuts) and the Dead (Programs) […]

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