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The Pentagon’s Problems With Budgeting Strategy – Analysis

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The Pentagon’s budget has almost doubled over the past decade, but the missions it has been asked to perform have also multiplied beyond anything anyone could have predicted. How many of these myriad tasks are likely to be repeated in the future, and where? With the budget showdown in Washington ongoing, it’s all on the table.

By Paul McLeary for ISN Insights

“When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told US Army cadets at West Point earlier this year. “We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq and more – we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.”

With little apparent sense of irony, Gates made his own prediction about future conflict, saying that “the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements,” likely to occur in the Pacific. Of course, only time will bear out his predictions, but in making a set of educated assumptions about the future, Gates was hardly stepping out of his lane. As Secretary of Defense, it was part of his job to help identify and define national security threats, marshalling resources in certain areas while accepting risk in others where the threat is thought to be less severe. This is the essence of strategy, and it is something that the Pentagon – and the United States government – has in many ways either forgotten how to do, or refuses to do.

Aerial view of the Pentagon circa 2008
Aerial view of the Pentagon circa 2008

This isn’t to say the Pentagon doesn’t produce doctrine or strategic reviews. It excels at the emission of thick binders on everything from operating concepts to training foreign forces to counterinsurgency warfare to acquisition plans for military hardware. The latest is the eagerly anticipated “comprehensive review” scheduled to be released this fall. Billed as the new “way forward” for the future of the military, as well as the blueprint for how it plans to get there, and how much money it will cost to do so, the blueprint faces substantial “known unknowns” – mainly in the form of the budget cuts that Congress is about to decide upon, which could range from $350 billion to almost $1 trillion over the next decade.

As part of the debt limit agreement passed in early August, the Pentagon stands to lose $350 billion in funding spread over the next ten years (excluding funding for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq), though Congress may slice even deeper this fall when it looks for another $1.2 trillion to cut across the entire federal government.

None of this should come as a surprise. In April, President Obama called for $400 billion in cuts to the base defense budget over a twelve year period, and Pentagon bean counters have been hard at work ever since trying to find places to cut or trim to meet that number. In July, then-Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright said that he was “certainly doing budget drills beyond $400 billion,” in preparation for larger cuts. Those larger cuts haven’t happened yet: this first stab at cuts actually gives $50 billion back to the Pentagon. And, in fact, the government can cut $400 billion from its security portfolio simply by allowing the defense budget to grow only at the rate of inflation for the next twelve years, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

“Everything must be on the table,” as Ashton B. Carter, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, recently told a crowd at a Washington event, adding that “this era will require a different mindset for managers and Congress. Since 9/11, we could always reach for more money. Those days are gone.” Significantly, Carter has just been nominated by President Obama to be the next Deputy Secretary of Defense: the Pentagon’s No. 2 official.

When it comes to weapons programs, The Air Force’s troubled F-35 fighter program has just about worn out Washington’s patience, as the first 28 jets scheduled to be delivered by Lockheed Martin have overshot their cost targets by $771 million and were grounded yet again in August after another testing failure (Total program cost is being quoted at $1 trillion, making it the most expensive program in military history.) The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship – the current complement of which it plans to increase by 55 over the coming decades, in order to reach its goal of a 313-ship Navy – has also blown up its budget, and one of the first two ships to hit the water was recently found to be corroding, only months after getting wet. The Marines are still struggling to justify their own version of the F-35 and recently cancelled its next-generation amphibious landing craft after spending $3.3 billion on various versions that didn’t pan out. The Army blew though $18 billion before cancelling its Future Combat Systems modernization program in 2009 and has yet to settle on a new plan. Of its two expensive new armored ground vehicles still in the pipeline, the smart money has at least one and maybe both being cancelled, in favor of rebuilding existing Humvees and MRAPs.

All this means that there is quite a lot of confusion about what the future force will look like, and what its capabilities may – and should – be. It also seriously calls into question the ability of any of the services to develop realistic, cost-effective acquisition programs.

Planning-wise, the Navy and Air Force are developing the AirSea Battle concept, which – though no one will say it out loud – anticipates conflict with China in the Western Pacific. The Marines have publicly stated that they want to return to their “expeditionary roots” after a decade fighting in the desert, and are planning to become lighter, faster, and more self-sufficient. The Army is waging an internal war over how to structure its force, most significantly with the coming tradeoff between buying new equipment and repairing and replacing existing gear that remains the best in the world. But none of these plans are anywhere near being finalized, and none can as yet be tied to any procurement or force structure decisions.

The Pentagon’s budget has almost doubled over the past decade, but the missions it has been asked to perform have also multiplied beyond anything anyone could have predicted. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military have acted as combatants, mayors, accountants, election monitors, aid workers, cops, development coordinators, farmers, and force trainers. Which of those tasks is likely to be repeated in the future, and where? It’s all on the table. If the current debt crisis isn’t enough to focus the big brains at the Pentagon into making the much-needed tough choices, then we might actually see what a real national security crisis looks like.

Paul McLeary is Senior Editor at Defense International Technology magazine in Washington, DC. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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