Budgeting for national security

By Gordon Adams | June 25, 2009

When taking into account the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. defense budget has more than doubled since fiscal year 2001. And yet, despite this growth, the appetite for more defense funding has continued unabated, and our security dilemmas appear to grow.

Last year, Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that the Pentagon should be guaranteed 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, a figure roughly consistent with today’s defense spending. He offered no strategic justification for this spending level. Along these lines, at the height of last year’s presidential campaign, the Chiefs led a Pentagon budget-planning exercise that sought to increase the defense budget by 14 percent in one year. They seemed to think that if they put out that number as what they absolutely needed, the next president would be vulnerable to attacks that he was “soft on defense” if he proposed anything less.

Assuming that our national security is the same thing as the size of our defense budget and military forces is a fundamental mistake.”

To his credit, President Barack Obama didn’t take the bait, holding the defense spending line at 4-percent growth for fiscal year 2010. Equally to his credit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed to that level of spending for next year. Even more surprisingly, Gates eliminated programs with growing costs and performance problems such as the army’s Future Combat System vehicles and the VH-71 helicopter. He also agreed to accept defense-budget projections for the future that would only grow with inflation, rather than the additional $450 billion the Chiefs wanted.

Less noticed, but equally important, Gates stepped into the messy, informal “unfunded requirements” budget process, which the services use to seek increases to their budgets outside of the formal budget-planning system. Every year since the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, the Armed Services Committees have invited the service chiefs to submit a separate letter telling the committees what the services wanted but didn’t get in the regular budget. In years past, the defense secretary and White House didn’t stop this permissive leak in the budget system because neither wanted to be accused of “muzzling” the uniforms.

Per usual, this spring, the Republican minorities on the Armed Services Committees, eager for an opportunity to hammer Obama on defense, called for the unfunded requirement letters. Gates didn’t stop them per se; he simply announced that he would review them first. And lo and behold, air force “unfunded requirements,” which had reached more than $20 billion in 2008, suddenly became less than $2 billion in 2009.

These are truly minimal, if important, gestures toward greater discipline in defense budgeting. But they have angered defense hawks. The Republican members of the Armed Services committees, for instance, are lambasting Obama and Gates for weakening national security. Meanwhile, the defense industry is quietly lobbying for more. Eager outside analysts are jumping in, too. Two weeks ago in a Washington Post op-ed, Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution called the Obama-Gates defense budget projections a “significant mistake” that would leave defense $150 billion short of what it needs between now and fiscal year 2014.

The critics conveniently forget that the defense budget has doubled in the last eight years. They still don’t seem to think we’re spending enough on national security and more for defense seems to be their answer. More largely, the national security debate in the United States takes place exclusively in the defense box, keeping it defined by defense logic and a static view of defense issues. But assuming that our national security is the same thing as the size of our defense budget and military forces is a fundamental mistake. And until Washington escapes from this circular reasoning, defense budgets and forces will continue to grow at a staggering rate, with declining security to show for it.

The Pentagon’s logic is compelling on the surface: Forces were stressed in Iraq so we need more forces. Operating those forces continues to cost more than we predicted, so we must add funding to accommodate that cost increase. This is the logic O’Hanlon is stuck in, and it’s the logic of defense budgeting as seen by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) when it looks at the costs of military forces. The CBO merely assumes the current force and projects what that force might cost in the future. It doesn’t ask whether it’s the right force with the right mission for the future of national security. Nor does it price out new missions. And it certainly doesn’t explore the alternatives or examine overall U.S. strategy.

Thinking about national security this way is a tail-chasing exercise that cannot discipline defense planning or budgeting, and it neglects the underlying truth: Defense is a “support function” for U.S. statecraft; it is not U.S. statecraft itself.

Thus, it’s time to ask two main questions about our national security strategy: What role do we choose to play in the world, and what is the right mix of tools to play that role? Sadly, there is little evidence that the administration is asking this question. Instead, they seem to be accepting things as they are.

In fact, the only strategy planning exercise going on today, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), has a defense orientation. Obviously then, the QDR will follow currently articulated defense missions and needs, using the current force as the starting point for its plan. Its assumptions will become the administration’s strategic assumption as well.

In other words, the forces will stay large; program and budget trade-offs will be made at the margins; and, if the QDR articulates new missions for those forces (counterinsurgency, overseas contingency operations, stabilization and reconstruction), as Gates wants, they will be pasted on top of existing missions and force requirements.

And you can rest assured that the Pentagon won’t engage the more basic question about the military’s proper role in maintaining national security. They will blindly accept the logic of counterinsurgency, post-conflict reconstruction, and overseas contingency operations–more or less, fighting the last war, i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, the forces will grow; the military missions will expand; and the budgets will follow.

Meanwhile, we will do little or no planning for the other major contingencies that undoubtedly will shape the future–a weakening global economy, poverty, climate change, infectious diseases, religious strife, and so on. Military force won’t solve these problems and has, at best, a peripheral role in dealing with any of them. Even worse, leaving the solutions to the Defense Department through some kind of a “constabulary” force creates the very conditions that make the force seem necessary.

Worse yet, our statecraft is so dysfunctional and over-militarized now that it’s almost impossible to correct the imbalance. Today, we assume that none of our civilian tools (i.e., the State Department and foreign-assistance agencies) are able to provide U.S. security, advance our interests, or build international cooperation. The federal budget reflects this sentiment, with an inordinate amount of money going to defense spending. And so, increasingly, we turn to the Pentagon and uniformed military to do the things that we should be building a civilian strategy and the civilian capacity to accomplish.

Together, we make the world safer.

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