How to get policymakers to understand tradeoffs -- and then remember them later
Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn went to the Intrepid Museum in New York City on May 11 to discuss how he and his colleagues are preparing for the coming lean years at the Pentagon. Lynn described what he and his staff have learned from the five previous episodes of defense drawdowns that have occurred since World War II. Lynn declared the previous drawdowns failures that left future policymakers unprepared for the security challenges they eventually faced. Lynn and his colleagues hope to do better this time.
Echoing comments Defense Secretary Robert Gates made this week, Lynn made clear that President Barack Obama's call for an additional $400 billion in security cuts over the next decade will create risks for future policymakers by limiting the military options available to them. In order to meet Obama's defense cut number, policymakers today will have to choose between acquiring certain future capabilities (such as new systems designed to address emerging threats) or having the capacities (enough soldiers and equipment) needed to accomplish some security objectives around the world. Lynn, Gates, and, presumably, Leon Panetta -- Gates successor -- hope to make sure that Obama and other top officials understand these trade-offs and consequences.
In his speech, Lynn discussed the importance of maintaining a substantial research and development program during the drawdown. He noted how policymakers during the 1970s drawdown maintained research into stealth technology, an investment that continues to pay off today. For the future, Lynn wants to continue research bets on long range strike systems, unmanned aircraft, and cyber capabilities. The purchase of these capabilities will presumably come out of the hide of forgone capacities - such as fewer ground combat brigades or legacy warships and aircraft.
It is here that top policymakers will have to make agonizing choices that risk possibly dramatic future consequences. Peer competitors like China will soon possess military research and technical capabilities that will nearly match those of the United States. Given the rapid advance of technology, it will be far too risky to forgo the development of leading capabilities such as those listed by Lynn. The long lead times required for fielding leading-edge systems will likely make it impossible to fill in a vulnerable technology gap during an emerging crisis.
But the price of paying for capability insurance may mean that top policymakers may not have the soldiers, warships, and airplanes to respond to politically urgent developments. For example, Harvard professor Sarah Sewall and retired general Anthony Zinni recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the Pentagon and military commanders to prepare plans for stopping mass atrocities anywhere in the world. Their piece appeared just a few weeks after Obama, European leaders, and others intervened in Libya for exactly this purpose. Beyond Libya, the world affords many more opportunities for similar humanitarian interventions by military forces. But a very real consequence of the tighter budget cap on the Pentagon may be to cause Obama or a future president to have to explain why he can only watch while some humanitarian disaster takes place because military capacities have already been committed elsewhere. Indeed, a lack of available military capacity in the Western powers leading the campaign against Qaddafi partly explains why the coalition is unable to resolve the Libyan conflict.
Sewall and Zinni explained that one reason for preparing such military plans is to inform policymakers of the implications of intervention before they make any commitments. Lynn, Gates, and Panetta have a similar goal in mind for the new defense review. What remains to be seen is whether down the road the policymakers who ordered defense savings will remember the constraints they previously created.