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U.S. must reject impossibly broad defense missions August 3, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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This post originally appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog, and is reprinted here.

“Your mission, should you decide to accept it” famously prefaced each of the mind-boggling tasks given to the Mission Impossible hero Jim Phelps. He, of course, always succeeded in his barely-possible work. Not to be outdone, a panel of defense experts will use a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday to assign the Pentagon a truly impossible mission set without even giving the American people a choice about accepting it.

This independent panel was chartered to critique the Pentagon’s February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review but instead compounded the document’s undisciplined ambition, its biggest shortcoming. That review retained classic missions like major theater war, deterrence, and patrolling the sea lanes, added on top new missions like countering unnamed insurgencies, aiding security force worldwide, and rebuilding failed states, and then said that the American people must fund them all with equal urgency. (Photo: HASC hearing with William Perry and Stephen Hadley, co-chairs of the QDR Independent Panel report).

Rather than resisting the Pentagon’s attempt to be all things to all people, the independent review panel will tell the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military should aim to do that and more. New equipment and training is needed all around, it determined, and the overall size of the force should grow substantially. Most of that growth comes in the panel’s recommendation for a naval fleet ten percent bigger than the Navy thinks it needs.

The Pentagon is a bureaucracy just like any other federal department, so it should come at no surprise that it competes aggressively with other departments for authority and resources. More objectivity should be expected from an outside panel, though. It should have a clear vision of the possible and, at minimum, avoid suggesting impossible missions to the Pentagon or imposing them on the country.

Two ideas drive the panel’s adventurism. It correctly identifies a gap between expansively-defined U.S. interest overseas and the military resources that support those interests. Incorrect, however, is its conclusion that America has no choice but to stridently press ahead. Not only do we have a choice, Congress and the administration have a sacred responsibility to use that discretion to spare our troops and our taxpayers from real-life missions impossible.

Ignoring this responsibility has allowed today’s defense spending to grow totally out of proportion to the challenges we face. We are more than 20 years beyond the Cold War shadow of global nuclear annihilation, yet national defense spending this year will be 30 percent higher than the Cold War peak in 1989, even after adjusting for inflation. The $720 billion we spend this year similarly will surpass the 1953 Korean War peak by 22 percent and Vietnam in 1968 by 21 percent. Remarkably, costs this steep haven’t been seen since the end of Word War Two.

Yet no amount of money can buy the impossible. Terror attacks are a tactic available to militant groups worldwide, and no amount of money can take that option away. Nor can it preempt every insurgent, win every heart and mind, or create states out of thin air. Most painfully, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are long gone from Afghanistan, and our entire national treasure cannot buy us back to 2001.

Congress is beginning to crack from the tension between the Pentagon’s ‘requirements’ for ever-increasing resources and the impossibility of the missions it’s trying to accomplish. Twelve House Republicans joined 102 House Democrats in voting last week against funding to supplement current operations in Afghanistan. And defense appropriators in both chambers decided days earlier to break recent precedent and substantially reduce the President’s request for next year’s defense budget.

More of this budget discipline is coming, despite the independent review panel’s exhortations to the contrary. Federal debt will reach nearly two-thirds of our national income this year for the first time since 1951, and will fully equal national income by the end of the decade if left unaddressed. Failing to control this debt will mean that interest payments will consume future budgets, limiting our spending discretion for defense even if our challenges become much more severe.

Looming debt and waning political support for operations in Afghanistan are eroding the foundation for today’s unprecedented defense budgets. Americans simply are tired of clinging to an impossible mission, much less paying for it.

This didn’t deter the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review from staying the course or the independent panel critiquing it from aggravating that mistake. But popular revulsion against undisciplined spending and ambition will demonstrate powerfully that we can choose our interests and how we pursue them.

A smaller military with smaller budgets is on the way. Our defense leaders are duty-bound to determine how to set priorities and manage risk in these new circumstances. Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing is an opportunity to begin introducing this discipline, and it is incumbent on the committee members to seize it.

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