Hey, it's a good line. It's probably the same thing I'd say if I were the SECDEF. But it's wildly irresponsible for the Pentagon to say "hey, it's not us, we're doing our part!" as Gates did back in November:
"If you cut the defense budget by 10 percent, which would be catastrophic in terms of force structure, that's $55 billion on a $1.4 trillion deficit," Gates said. "We are not the problem."(By that logic, shouldn't GE be saying "if you cut the F136 engine, which would be catastrophic in terms of Ohio jobs and the assured reliability of the Joint Strike Fighter, that's $2.9 billion (pdf) on a $553 billion defense budget. We are not the problem"?)
Secretary Gates wants to have his cake and eat it, too: he wants to dismiss critics of his cuts by saying the recommendations are based on strategy, but push back on those calling for deeper cuts by talking about math. But a responsible defense budget and a responsible federal budget must take both considerations into account: math and strategy. If ADM Mullen is right and the national debt really does pose the greatest threat to national security, then isn't the "math" part really, really significant? Strategy, after all, is inseparable from math: strategy is fundamentally about choices, about maximizing benefit with limited resources. The SECDEF said it himself just two years ago!
The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything. The Department of Defense must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.Gates's defenders -- and I'm one of them -- will say "but the Department already has set priorities, and this budget request is based on the real requirements of supporting our national security strategy!" And when it comes down to it, I probably agree with him on this one. Beyond this justification, Gates has to defend the requested figure out of simple adherence to his word: he told the service secretaries and chiefs that they'd get their savings back if they found fat to cut; if those dollars instead come out of the topline, just wait and see the foot-dragging when the next round of service-identified "efficiency" cuts comes around.
But just as expected, people aren't happy: conservative commentators, China hawks, the defense industry, and most of their buddies on the Armed Services committees think that $553 billion is just an irresponsibly paltry sum, while peaceniks, budget hawks, and proponents of other vulnerable spending programs are tearing their hair out at the seeming invulnerability of the defense budget. Add to that latter group the New York Times editorial board, which yesterday did its level best to oversimplify the issue and generally aid confusion and misunderstanding. On the subject of the EFV's termination, they wistfully bemoan the $3 billion already wasted -- as if anything the SECDEF might do could get it back. On the Joint Strike Fighter, they note a doubling of per-unit cost while arguing vaguely that "it should be cut back" -- apparently failing to absorb the irony of recommending action that will further increase cost-per-plane. And on the Osprey and Virginia-class sub, they argue for program cuts or cancellations based on oversimplified and outdated operational rationales.
And that's not even the worst part. Try this one on for size:
The Pentagon needs to jettison the ancient formula that guarantees each service its accustomed share of taxpayer dollars. Air and sea power that can be readily mobilized are vital to American security. But for a decade, the Army and the Marines have been pushed to their limits while the Navy and the Air Force have looked for ways to stay useful and justify their budget shares.
Updating the formula to reflect a more realistic division of labor would wring significant savings from the Air Force and the Navy while protecting the Army and the Marines from the multiple combat tours that have strained service members and their families over the last decade.I hear a lot about this "ancient formula," but I've never had it adequately explained to me. That said, let's stipulate that there is such a formula for ensuring each service gets its annual share of the budgetary pie; might it not be the case that this makes good sense? After all, you can't turn the entire Defense Department around on a dime, as Secretary Gates has learned, nor should it be easy to do so. This isn't just a matter of institutional interests and inertia (though those are at play, too), but of preventing the crises of today from fundamentally destabilizing the kind of steady-state modernization that underpins the U.S. military's global freedom of action and deterrent functions.
But back to the editorial -- let's look at exactly what the two paragraphs above really say: "Air and sea power that can be readily mobilized are vital to American security... [but] a more realistic division of labor would... protect the Army and Marines from... multiple combat tours." Uh, what? This is really almost impenetrable. Presumably the writers mean to say that budget shares should more realistically reflect the actual intra-Departmental division of labor over the last several years (not "a more realistic division of labor"), and that cuts to the Navy and Air Force's budgets would allow for an increase in land forces end-strength and result in extended home-station dwell-time for Army and Marine units. But there are a number of very significant problems with this line of reasoning.
- The suggestion that the Navy and Air Force have had to "look for ways to stay relevant and justify their budget shares" is based on two serious misunderstandings: the first is that air and sea forces' true value should be found in tactical utility in combat rather than strategic deterrent and guarantor of access, and the second is that "looking for ways to stay relevant" is a bad thing rather than an important driver of institutional adaptation.
- Calls to shift funding from expensive, sophisticated, long lead-time weapon systems to personnel accounts and other investments in land power force structure fail to acknowledge that high-end technical solutions cannot simply be purchased when needed, but are the end-result of sustained investment in the defense industrial base and commitment to developmental technologies.
- Further end-strength increases will put additional strain on an already troubled recruiting base and increasingly challenge the Army and Marine Corps to build soldiers and Marines from suboptimal raw material. On top of that, absent significant reform to Tri-Care and military benefits, expansion of the active-duty rolls will carry with it the very same long-term fiscal commitments that are helping to cripple serious efforts at deficit reduction in the domestic portion of the federal budget.
- If you listen to senior leaders in both the Defense Department and the broader United States government, manpower-intensive land wars aren't on anybody's top-five list of efficacious foreign policy solutions. U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan are about to start coming down, so what sense does it make to start budgeting for a larger Army and Marine Corps?
This editorial exhibits the very worst tendencies of both budget-cutters and budget-growers: bath math, bad reasoning, and an absence of strategic judgment.
Things aren't as simple as any of the factions in the budget debate want to make them. Beware of those who bring math or strategy, but not both.