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Skelton offers DOD modest nudge away from budget discipline tsunami June 21, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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Two movements of tsunami-like size are bearing down on the Defense Department and the all-inclusive, un-prioritized mission set that it laid out in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).  As the drawdown dates for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan approach, those missions will be seen more and more as outlier cases rather than models of the new normal.  Budget discipline is the second movement, and that tsunami is peaking.

Congressman Ike Skelton (D-MO), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), recently took a tentative step in recognition of the oncoming budget discipline tsunami.  Specifically, Rep. Skelton publicized his intent to create a special body or process charged with identifying opportune cuts in the defense budget.  Like the Defense Department’s own plan, however, Rep. Skelton intends for this money to be reallocated within the Defense Department rather than to generate true savings for the country.  It also seems that Rep. Skelton presently plans to consider only efficiency increases rather than accepting the far more difficult, but important, task of disciplining missions.

This tentative step is insufficient for the problems we face.  Defense spending is at heights unreached since World War II while our economy is at depths unseen since the Great Depression.  The Defense Department’s mission set needs discipline, and that discipline needs to generate real and meaningful savings for the country.

Though insufficient, Rep. Skelton’s plan still is very useful.  His voice is authoritative, and adding it to Secretary Gates’ statements on spending constraints lends unique legitimacy to the issue.  Likewise, a number of steps are available within his parameters that would advance the issue significantly.  The Stimson Center’s Dr. Gordon Adams addressed many of these in recent testimony before HASC’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.  They include:

  • End the annual ‘unfunded requirements’ exchange between the armed services committees and the military services. These letters serve only to aggravate congressional spending indiscipline.  In the process, they weaken the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the ADM Mullen’s efforts to integrate Service budgets and make trade-offs.
  • Revisit the functions authorized for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the Goldwater-Nichols Act to strengthen the Chairman’s role, in support of the Secretary, integrating Service budgets and plans. Budgeting is the last, uncrossed frontier of ‘jointness’ and, because budgeting is policy, it is among the most important.
  • Impose accountability on Defense Department for meeting its schedule for financial auditability. The FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act tasks the Defense Department with being ready for audit by 30 September 2017. The Defense Department should have to report on its progress regularly rather than waiting until 2017 for any information.
  • Amend the QDR’s statutory authorization to direct the Defense Department to solicit and incorporate inputs from the State Department and Intelligence Community on the QDR’s strategic assumptions and planning scenarios. These assumptions and scenarios drive the tools that the Defense Department develops to support U.S. foreign policy, but no foreign policy input presently is required.

Now is the time to start taking these steps.  Any announcement by Rep. Skelton about a panel or process to do so would begin to slide the Defense Department out of the path of the budget discipline tsunami it faces.  Even though these steps are far from sufficient to pull the Defense Department all the way to safety, they would be a meaningful start to a process sure to continue in the years to come.

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