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Secretary Gates and Discipline at DOD May 11, 2010

Posted by Gordon Adams in Analysis.
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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a major speech last week about the future of US defense capabilities and the military budget.  It was generally greeted as a voice of realism, bringing the military services up short to realize that the fiscal “gusher,” that has doubled US defense spending over the past decade, “has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time.”

It was nothing of the sort.  While he talked about saving more than $300 billion in hardware cuts over the past two budgets, he said nothing about the billions his budget decisions added to replace the systems he ostensibly cut – more current generation destroyers replacing the ‘cancelled’ new ones, and the extension of the vehicle program in the ostensibly cut Future Combat System, just to name two.

The key to understanding what Gates was really saying lies in the Secretary’s statement that the current state of the world justifies “sustaining the current military force structure.”   And in his assertion that the defense budget must grow roughly two-to-three percent above inflation to sustain that force structure.  And in his argument that any savings that result from his plan should be retained at DOD to provide that rich budget the current force requires.

Rather than playing on the margins of fiscal restraint, the Secretary and the Department would do well to prepare for two tsunamis that are bearing down on them, not just the one that the Secretary noted.  Gates acknowledged that historic levels of deficits and US debt were putting the nation at fiscal risk, which would lead to slower federal spending in the coming years.  The European fiscal crisis of the past month is a warning of the risks we face in not dealing with this looming crisis.  US debt is projected to reach 80-100% of US Gross Domestic Product in the coming decade; continued borrowing to fund that debt will raise interest costs and put in jeopardy the stellar rating US Treasury notes have had historically.

Secretary Gates is less prepared for the second tsunami, however:  the departure of the US military from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The US is certain to be largely withdrawn from Iraq over the next year, and equally likely to be largely withdrawn from Afghanistan in the next three years.  Coupled with concerns about deficits and debt, a shrinking presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will pull the rug out from under public support for what has been an undisciplined military budget.

Gates has not prepared the military for this event. To the contrary, DOD strategic and mission planning, under Gates, has gone in exactly the opposite direction.  The recent Quadrennial Defense Review, far from setting priorities and making tough choices, opens the door to an endless quest for more resources at great risk to military planning and to American finances.

The QDR lays out US military missions that are staggeringly ambitious and demanding.  Instead of setting aside the force-intensive two major regional contingencies previously used as the centerpiece of force planning, it adds to them.  DOD missions are being expanded to include major counterinsurgency operations, stabilization operations, counter-terror operations, humanitarian relief, homeland defense and civil support, control of the “global commons”, “anti-access operations”, and “building partner capacity.”

Nowhere are these missions given priority ranking.  No tradeoffs are made among them.  The QDR provides no calculus of the level of risk the nation faces by setting such priorities.  In fact, its most clear statement about risk asserts that the biggest risk America faces is political, which “derives from the perceived legitimacy of our actions and the resulting impact on the ability and will of allies and partners to support shared goals.”  In other words, there is some risk that the Pentagon’s excessive ambition will not meet with global support and cooperation.

This unconstrained piling-on of missions constitutes the most obvious case for endless defense budget growth.  It has gone unchallenged, at DOD, in the administration, or in the Congress.  But it is the most obvious symptom of the lack of discipline in current DOD planning.

Secretary Gates and the military services are in trouble, and they don’t know it.  They are laying out more missions and calling for more funding when the sand is running out on the money hourglass and the political support for more is fading.  The world may no longer welcome global US policing.  Not every country and region needs the US to provide them with military training and equipment.  There may be little call for military nation-building (especially given recent experiences).   And ‘access’ may be a buzz word, but it is not a clear strategy.  In other words, DOD would do well to step back and review the global bidding.  A lot of the presumed “requirement” for capability may be fictional, a view of the world created in our own minds but not clearly aligned with realities.

Instead of reiterating a litany of management tasks, akin to the old cry that “waste, fraud, and abuse” would soon end, and promising that such management will fix the budgetary problem, it would have served the Secretary and the Department well to shape a QDR and a budget that were a real strategic plan, setting priorities among the missions, making clear what would not be done.  That and real budget discipline over defense from the top of the administration would have sent a clearer and more realistic message to the Department:  you will do well with less, for less is the order of the day.

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