Thursday, July 28, 2011

More money = more readiness, just as simple as that?

The infamous Rep. Forbes, chairman of the HASC Readiness subcommittee, brought the number two guys from each of the services over to the Hill on Tuesday to talk about how the imagined "sustained lack of resources" for defense has imperiled American military preparedness. (Read Spencer's and Philip Ewing's excellent pieces on the hearing.) Each officer made the standard, prosaic opening statement -- underpinned as always by a pledge about his service being prepared to carry out the country's missions and support the warfighter and blah blah blah -- before being poked and prodded into elaborating on the horrifying future we should expect if a deficit-reduction deal includes significant defense cuts. This line of reasoning, of course, is built on the premise that readiness is all about resources. But resources are always constrained in some way; what we ought to be talking about is whether or not we're making the best possible decisions about how to use them.

To wit, take a look at this snip from Air Force vice chief Gen. Philip Breedlove's written testimony. After running down a list of the many operational missions the service has executed in recent years, he drops this on us:
This level of activity reflects our commitment to provide Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power in today’s Joint fight. However, this high operations tempo (OPTEMPO) has had some detrimental effects on our overall readiness. Since 2003, we have seen a slow but steady decline in reported unit readiness indicators. Maintaining our ability to be ready for the full spectrum of operations at an acceptable level of risk is challenging, especially for the Combat Air Forces (CAF) and some limited-supply/high-demand units.
I know I sound like a broken record on this, but it bears repeating: operations erode readiness. War definitely erodes readiness, but so too do training and exercises and the whole range of peacetime missions that aren't accompanied by the extra burden and risk of combat losses. Simply put, we're spending more and ending up with less because we're using what we've bought, and using it harder and more than we usually count on doing. But resources are constrained, you know? So if we had a few extra bucks, we'd probably spend them in ways that helped to mitigate those readiness concerns, right... not just to do more of the same? Hold that thought.

Let's pause for just a second and kick it over to CSBA's Todd Harrison to explain what the Pentagon calls "unfunded priorities."
Each year, the Services rank and prioritize items for inclusion in the budget request. Unfunded priorities are those items not included in the budget request because they are a lower priority and do not fit within the funding ceiling set for the Department. The Services’ lists of unfunded priorities, sometimes referred to as “wish lists,” are routinely requested by Congress for consideration during their markup of the budget. The total amount of unfunded priorities grew dramatically over the past decade, rising from $9.5 billion in FY 2001 to a peak of $38 billion in FY 2008 (both figures in FY 2012 dollars). In the FY 2010 budget process, Secretary Gates required the Services to present their unfunded priorities to him for review before submitting them to Congress. Unfunded priorities for that year fell by an order of magnitude to just $3.5 billion. In FY 2011 unfunded priorities fell to $1.8 billion, and in FY 2012 they total only $1.2 billion. Nearly all of the unfunded priorities submitted to Congress are in procurement and O&M. This indicates that if the Services had additional funding available they would prioritize the maintenance of existing equipment and would procure additional equipment or spares to augment their inventory. (pdf, p. 4)
We're going to leave aside the interesting subplots here -- that Congress actually requires the Services to list the things they've decided not to ask for in the budget request, that "unfunded priorities" skyrocketed over the same period that the budget topline dramatically increased, etc. -- and get back to what the Air Force would do if it had a bit more cash.
The Air Force requests $124 million in unfunded priorities. At the top of the list is $42.5 million for 75 maintenance testers and spares to support the A-10 aircraft. According to the Air Force, the currently fielded testing equipment is “obsolete and no longer procurable,” and the lack of new testing equipment will result in some aircraft being grounded in FY 2013. An additional $33.7 million is requested for an EC-130H avionics upgrade to replace the air data computer, which if not replaced would result in Compass Call aircraft groundings, also beginning in FY 2013. The remaining $47.5 million funds the replacement of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), Anti-Missile Countermeasures Decoy Systems, Air-to-Ground Missiles, and Laser-Guided Weapons expended due to operations in Libya. (pdf, p. 5)
Look back at what Gen. Breedlove said: "a slow but steady decline in reported unit readiness indicators." So why is the extended budget ask entirely composed of new stuff? The VCSAF tells us elsewhere that the service is pumping efficiency savings back in to modernization accounts to pay for the next-gen bomber, more UAVs, F-15 radar modernization, and many other things... all of which are surely important to the development of future capabilities, but which have little to do with maximizing current operational readiness.

Obviously it's true that extra airframes and spares help to boost readiness by addressing maintenance shortfalls and recapitalizing aging fleets, and spare cash can be used to pay for more fuel, more flight hours, more time in simulators, and so on. But instead of asking leading questions like "wouldn't it be tough to do your job if the defense budget was cut by a trillion dollars?", why aren't legislators making a more committed effort to find out exactly how the resources they're meant to provide actually translate into readiness and combat power? To learn how the Air Force, for example, plans to reverse that "decline in reported unit readiness indicators" both by spending extra money and by adapting how they do business, making related changes to training, doctrine, organizations, and all things you've got to figure out how to do when the time comes that the dollar figure just ain't getting any bigger?

Forbes and his pals don't make a better effort because what they're doing is political theater, not strategic leadership. The chairman and his colleagues surely know that such an exploration would almost certainly reveal that sometimes the answer isn't simply to buy more, better, newer stuff. The recent focus on strategy development as the essential first step in a rational and comprehensive resourcing process is both refreshing and fundamentally beside the point. Here's how Forbes put it in Tuesday's hearing:
As we consider our deficit, federal spending, and the impact on our defense budget, I believe we should be asking four questions: 
First, "What are the threats we face?" Second, "What resources do our combatant commanders need to protect us against those threats?" Third, "What do these resources cost and how can we obtain them as efficiently as possible," and fourth, "What can we afford and what are the risks to our nation if we do not supply those resources?" 
I believe many in Congress and the White House have been asking only the portion of question four that asks how much they want to expend, and they have been ignoring the other questions almost entirely.
Fair enough, and the congressman is right to draw attention to the Department's (and the country's) strategy deficit. But it's disingenuous to pretend as if these questions aren't asked in some way, shape or form, because they are. It's also true that the answers are speculative, lack rigor or compelling rationale, and do little to help us set real priorities. And a big part of the reason it happens that way is that the folks tasked with asking the questions and generating the answers have absolutely zero incentive to make hard choices. They're rewarded for dreaming up an expansive list of threats, challenges, risks, and attendant "requirements."

To believe that we can ever draft a prioritized list of desired capabilities to meet projected threats, then arbitrarily draw a chop line below one program and above another based on somebody's assessment of "what we can afford" is simple fantasy. And beyond that, it's an economic nonsense: a laundry list in which all "priorities" can be or ought to be funded scandalizes the transactional philosophy that underpins efficient resource allocation. We all know there's no such thing as getting something for nothing, and to ignore the trade-offs that come with just spending more in the belief that security can be commoditized is dishonest and irresponsible.

I hate to keep repeating myself on this, but to parrot the former SECDEF's now-famous phrase, we have to do math and strategy. Yes, we need to take a look at fundamental roles and missions. Yes, we need to write real, meaningful, actionable strategy documents that can inform resource decisions instead of the unsatisfying pap we currently churn out. Yes, we need to try to get a handle on the role we want to play in the world, the tasks the military needs to be able to accomplish to enable that role, and the capabilities we think are best suited to accomplishing those tasks. That's strategy.

But strategy is also about thoughtful adaptation. It's about figuring out multiple ways to accomplish the same ends, particularly when the means get changed up on you. The credit-based economy has thieved this skill from most people and many governments; instead of thinking how to meet our needs with the resources we've got, we spend time thinking up ways to eventually pay off the tab we've run up collecting the things we want. If I say "write me some plans for defending America with a single infantry battalion," you might reasonably say that's nonsensical and a-strategic. But if I say "here's $300 billion, now buy me the best defense you can," you damn well ought not come back with a blank page and plead poverty.


  1. The credit-based economy has thieved this skill from most people and many governments; instead of thinking how to meet our needs with the resources we've got, we spend time thinking up ways to eventually pay off the tab we've run up collecting the things we want.

    Clever. I think you're right, too.

    On constituencies (a separate post of yours): everyone's got one. The whole "state" versus "DOD" conversation always amuses me. As if you give more to one or the other it will automatically make either institution more effective.

    The point is, what do we want from our diplomatic corps and military? We've gotten too bureaucratic in our thinking. Arguing over a pie instead of first principles (stole that from Bacevich).

  2. Thinking in circles (my specialty), the National Security Archives has just posted a bunch of documents on the British and American attempts to prevent Pakistan from getting "the bomb."

    Digging around. It's all "same as it ever was, same as it ever was." State argues against a hard line and how we need to engage, etc.

    The anti-nuclear proliferation people are in for some heart burn in the coming years.

    I don't think we can stop any of this, just maybe slow it down a few years with unintended consequences arising from the attempts to slow things down.


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