Time to discipline defense spending July 19, 2010Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
Tags: Afghanistan, Defense Budget, Gordon Adams, Iraq, Norm Dicks, QDR, QDR Independent Panel, Quadrennial Defense Review, Secretary Gates
Three weeks remain before Congress’ month-long recess, and that short time will be filled heavily by the FY2011 defense appropriations markups and the pending war supplemental request. This focus offers an important opportunity for Congress to begin the process of disciplining defense missions and budgets, an inevitable outcome of historically high costs and waning political support. In an op-ed published in today’s edition of Politico, Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman explain this inevitability and how best to adjust to it.
by Dr. Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman
An absence of restraint and a failure to set priorities, as revealed in the Quadrennial Defense Review, has put the Pentagon on a collision course with fiscal realities and a changing political environment.
Now is the time for Congress and the Pentagon to take a closer look at the military’s missions, make a realistic risk calculation and reshape a smaller and better tailored force.
House defense appropriators are poised to take an important step in this direction with their coming markup of the Pentagon’s budget request. Indications are that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, may cut the defense budget — though President Barack Obama and the Senate Budget Committee had exempted it from the larger freeze on discretionary accounts.
However, this would be only the first step in dealing with the two tidal waves bearing down on the defense budget. The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review ignored both. It did nothing to acknowledge the nation’s grave budget woes or the timeline for U.S. withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Independent Review Panel, charged with assessing the QDR, is expected to put the Pentagon’s failure to prioritize missions atop the list of critiques in its report, which is expected to be released in two weeks. Indeed, it must.
The Pentagon, rather than properly constraining missions, simply layered new missions on top of old and gave everything equal priority.
The mission, as laid out in the QDR, seems boundless. On one end, it includes deterrence, conventional wars, patrolling the world’s oceans and defending the United States. On the other end are counterinsurgency, stabilization (nation-building), fighting a terrorist organization and aiding security forces worldwide.
Complicating all this is an assertion that the military should accept no risk in executing any of these missions. This means an enormous demand for standing, active-duty forces stationed worldwide — and soaring defense budgets follow.
The lack of planning and budgetary discipline ignores the country’s economic problems and flagging political support for high defense budgets. Congressional appropriators must face down these fiscal and political tidal waves and impose constraints now.
The first wave is the growing concern with deficits and debt. Debt as a share of gross domestic product, estimated at 64 percent by the Office of Management and Budget, is higher than any since 1951. Left unaddressed, it could equal GDP by the end of the decade.
Our gradual withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan is creating the other wave. Unrestricted war spending drives the defense budget indiscipline that we see today.
A disappointing outcome, combined with our withdrawal, could further reduce support for these unprecedented budgets.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is confronting this situation with talk of restraint. But he actually plans for real budget growth. It falls to Congress, therefore, to manage these tidal waves.
A good model would be the last big cut in defense spending from 1989 to 1998. Then, as now, the United States confronted serious political change and a need for debt reduction.
Congresses and administrations of both parties responded by agreeing to a package of spending and revenue changes that put everything on the table. This comprehensiveness was a key to their success.
Congress must learn equally from failures and successes. Policies that pursue operating efficiencies to reap more for less are one of these failures. Acquisition reform has come and gone many times, for example, without ever leaving a trail of savings behind it.
The fact that one department, owning half the government’s discretionary budget, cannot meet normal audit standards is appalling. But that condition seems chronic.
The way to really pay less is to do less. Congress and the Pentagon must address the issues of mission priorities and managing risk. Fiscal responsibility and good planning demand a clear statement of U.S. interests and values, an accounting of the challenges and opportunities involved, a precise assessment of the civilian and defense missions and a setting of priorities.
A mission like stabilization, which is more remote from U.S. interests and addresses lesser risks, should have lower budgetary priority. We need to shore up our civilian institutions to address these issues.
Freezing next year’s defense spending, a crucial first step, can lead to a reduction of at least $10 billion in the pending budget.
This is a critical year for congressional appropriators to take this step. They must signal to the Pentagon that help is not on the way.
Now is the time for real budgetary discipline — and for the Pentagon to revisit and prioritize its missions. The longer it is delayed, the more painful it will be for the Pentagon to adjust to our new political and fiscal environment.
Gordon Adams is professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service and a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. Matthew Leatherman is a research associate at the Stimson Center and contributor to the Budget Insight blog.