Amidst the many uncertainties and machinations in the negotiations in Washington on the "fiscal cliff," a few things are beginning to emerge as certain. Among them: the defense budget will be going down. Another is that none of the parties to the negotiations is seeking the kind of change that the Pentagon must undergo to survive effectively, even prosper, under significantly reduced budgets.
The new, post-election reality of a declining Department of Defense (DOD) budget was signaled by a conglomeration of mainstream think tank pundits, Capitol Hill staffers from both political parties, industry and executive branch defense specialists, and retired military officers put together by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: They opined on not whether the defense budget was about to decline significantly but on how to do it. (Some of them had some pretty horrible ideas; more on that later.) The new reality of less money for DOD was also made clear in a provocative summary of five different think tanks reports at Foreign Policy by Gordon Adams.
The emerging view on the dimension of the coming DOD cuts, summarized by Adams, is they will be substantial, perhaps "as much as another $500 billion below the 10-year forecast Secretary Panetta offered last February -- making the overall reduction, including his budget request, at least $1 trillion." These new cuts will not be the automatic, across the board ones scheduled by Congress in the Budget Control Act of 2011, now known as sequestration, but instead will be more gradually implemented and perhaps even lower, ultimately, than those programmed in the sequester.
To meet the clamor for plans, multiple think tanks are putting out their cut lists, and many of them are also specifying goodies to protect: Anything with the words "cyber security" or "unmanned" top those lists. The authors mostly seem to assume that it is reasonable to prepare for an austere Pentagon by simply eliminating and/or paring back a selection of programs and to dial back, perhaps a little, national strategy. They are doing little more than maneuvering over what is on and off the cut lists and how to wordsmith the next White House declaration of national security strategy.
They are laying the groundwork for the same Pentagon as the one we have now, just at somewhat lower spending levels with several fewer programs -- and more of the remaining ones funded at unrealistically lower levels than usual.
All through the George W. Bush and first Obama terms, we witnessed dramatic growth in the Pentagon's "base" budget, adding about $1 trillion to planned DOD spending for non-war basics -- that is not including the additional monies spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With 44 percent more money, the Navy's fleet shrank by ten percent; with a budget 43 percent larger, the Air Force's air combat fleet shrank 51 percent. And, in both cases, their equipment inventories became older, not modernized. The Army grew by a grand total of two brigade combat teams as its base budget grew 53 percent in real terms.
How on earth is a Pentagon that permits most of its forces to shrink and age with increased budgets going to be a healthy asset for national defense with smaller budgets? All the negative trends will accelerate: the shrinking, the aging, the underfunding for training and readiness, and much more at increased cost -- unless three simple but fundamental things change in the Pentagon.
The needed changes involve coming to 1) understand what the Pentagon does with its money, 2) put the health of the combat forces, people, and equipment above all other considerations, and 3) have DOD leadership that effectively insists on the first two things.
Sometimes it is the simplest things that are the hardest to do.
Today, the Pentagon does not know how it spends its money; neither does anyone else. As the Government Accountability Office, DOD's Inspector General, and even Congress have reported for decades, the Pentagon cannot pass an audit. It is not just a question of satisfying a pedantic desire for tracking pennies. Today, the Pentagon does not reliably know if it has paid contractors once, twice, or not at all: we rely on those friendly contractors to tell us if there is a problem. We don't have a provable record of where all the ships, tanks, aircraft, and all other equipment are, and which items need what repair parts -- a real problem, for example, in Afghanistan. We never get audits of any of the Pentagon's 83 Major Defense Acquisition Programs, which according the last tabulation cost $1.618 trillion -- itself an unverifiable estimate.