Fourteen years ago, George Wilson, a long-time defense journalist, wrote a great book on defense politics called This War Really Matters. Wilson was not talking about the Balkans, or Rwanda, or Iraq. He was talking about the war the services really care about: the one over their budgets.
He must be enjoying himself today. Although that war went quiet for the last three months, it has been renewed in earnest in the last two weeks as President Obama appears to have given the military permission to bombard Congress with the worst set of horror stories we have heard about our national security since the Soviets got the bomb, in the hopes of scaring them into making a deal on sequestration.
On Wednesday, Secretary Panetta kicked his rhetoric up a notch, warning of dire consequences for military readiness if sequestration were to happen on March 1. More importantly, for the last 10 days or so, the military services have been allowed to fire their briefing charts at will (like this one, for example). A blizzard of terrifying data is now raining down on an unsuspecting Congress, like an artillery barrage of PowerPoint, to force the GOP to retreat to the negotiating table.
If you don't think that's what this battle is about, consider that the White House, I am told, is giving no close scrutiny, no wire-brush scrub, to the services' readiness briefing charts that are being so enthusiastically spread around the Hill and the media. Check out the silence in non-defense agencies, all of which are either allowing or being asked to allow, DOD to take on point in the budget wars. They haven't got the firepower the Pentagon has.
Nobody has time to give each of its shells the close and critical scrutiny they deserve. But as scary as they may be, their connection to reality -- and to math -- remains tenuous.
One says that readiness in Afghanistan is at stake if the Army doesn't get an additional $6 billion for operational funding. How did the Army discover a new $6 billion requirement when congressional appropriators have found an equivalent amount of under-spending in the same war during each of the last two years -- money to which the Army has helped itself in order to fund other pet projects?
Another puts military pay on the block next year because there is budget uncertainty this year. How can it be that military personnel next year will get a raise lower than the rate of inflation because we have to conserve resources, but we don't talk about the growth in warriors' allowances (housing and subsistence), which make up nearly half a soldier's income and will increase beyond the rate of inflation? That latter increase will make up for the smaller-than-usual pay raise, but we didn't hear about it -- presumably to prompt the ground forces into the budget battle.
Some of the shelling is coming ahead of schedule. How is it that the military services envision dire options of every imaginable kind, but provide no analysis of what they decided to protect, especially the Army's sizable bureaucracy. What budget numbers are being protected by these draconian cuts? Why have the services' briefing charts been distributed and leaked all over Washington when the sequester options reports weren't due to the secretary until Friday?