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Facing Reality at the Pentagon

Washington is clearly insane. But have military planners finally come to grips with the sequester?

The shutdown/debt ceiling/budget crisis may be over, for now. But inside the Beltway, most folks who care about defense issues and the military continue to bang away at the assumed "damage" that sequestration and these budget battles are doing to America's military capabilities. The Buck McKeons and John McCains of the world shrilly advertise the end of U.S. military superiority as we have known it, while the service chiefs parade to the Hill to alert these same "defenders of defense" to the perilous state the military risks finding itself in, if sequestration continues unabated.

Even the secretary of defense, in his touted "Scammer" (Strategic Choices and Management Review, or SCMR) last summer, warned that sequester-level budget cuts over the next few years would make the current Pentagon military strategy untenable. He may be right, though the direct linkages between the January 2012 Panetta strategy document and the actual size and budget for the military have never been very clear.

But there is no sign that defense budgets are about to turn around and climb upward again, and every sign that sequester-level defense spending is here to stay. For many, the relatively smooth adjustment the Pentagon made to the sequester last fiscal year suggested that the military had been crying "wolf."

Most Democrats have happily stood by as Republicans fractured on the defense issue (the GOP fracture on the overall budget appears to have been even more politically entertaining). For most of Congress, the sequester is like a grand, budgetary version of a base closure round: let some outside automatic process take care of the changes on which politicians cannot agree. The deus ex machina machine will step in and make it happen. Terrible things happen, but nobody gets blamed.

Accepting that fiscal reality (the final phase in the stages of sequester grief) is now the core decision the Pentagon needs to make; it is the first step toward defense planning wisdom.

There are signs we are getting there, at least in the Pentagon. There are reports that senior planners are now looking at FY 2014 spending decisions that accept as fait accompli the $52 billion in cuts that the sequester would take from the president's defense budget request. That's not quite as dramatic as it sounds, since the sequester level for defense is actually only $20 billion below the level the Pentagon lived with in FY 2013. But serious additional cuts will be needed to get there.

If this process continues, what it really means is that the baseline for future defense budgets has permanently changed from the wish lists set out over the past two or three years. And it is time to accept that baseline, and think accordingly, lining up forces, technology, and capabilities with the reality of resources. As strategist Bernard Brodie put it years ago, "strategy wears a dollar sign."

Most strategic planners don't like that reality; no Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) has ever been planned with resources in mind. This one will be -- and sources tell me the independent panel reviewing the QDR this time (appointed by Congress and the Obama administration, and co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Iraq commander Gen. John Abizaid) is determined to do its work with resource limitations firmly in mind.

Good. Now, how do we step outside the strategic box, so we can get real capabilities for realistic money? Not everybody is there, yet, but there are signs that the defense community is waking up and smelling the coffee. Two recent reports plant new flags in the revised vision of our national security future. And as they are firmly based in experience and knowledge about security issues and defense planning, they make for worthwhile reading as we look ahead to this brave new world.

The first is a report out in September written by the Stimson Center (and supported by the Peterson Foundation), called "Strategic Agility: Strong National Defense for Today's Global and Fiscal Realities." It is an update of a report Stimson wrote before sequestration, which takes into account the new budgetary realities and finds nearly $50 billion worth of savings in FY 2014 and another $50 billion the year after, without sacrificing the ability of the U.S. military to execute national strategy.

One striking feature of the Stimson report is the makeup of the group which has signed on, arguing that such reductions are possible. While not all of them agreed with 100 percent of the recommendations, the group included a number of retired military officers, such as Gen. Norton Schwartz (former Air Force chief of staff), Adm. Gary Roughead (former chief of Naval Operations), Gen. James Cartwright and Adm. Bill Owens (two former vice-chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), as well as other former senior military and diplomatic officials and security analysts. (Full disclosure: I participated in this group and signed the report, as well.)

But what makes the report important is that it accepts fiscal realities and makes proposals to tailor U.S. forces so they can perform missions within a realistic view of the global security universe. It argues that the United States has and will retain military superiority, enough to anticipate any contingency that might require military action. It realistically proposes reducing U.S. military forces in Europe, avoiding a buildup in the Middle East, and rotating forces in East Asia. And it argues for avoiding protracted ground wars anywhere.

The report proposes a smaller Army structure than is currently projected, as well as a smaller Marine Corps -- though the cuts are not so deep as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said would happen with sequester-level budgets. It would keep operational the number of aircraft carriers we now have (11), as well as the current Special Operations forces (some 68,000 across the services). It argues for increased investment in cyber capabilities -- a recommendation I do not agree with -- but reduced investment in nuclear forces. And it makes a number of recommendations on procurement programs consistent with its force structure options.

Most significantly, the Stimson report challenges the Pentagon to find savings in overhead spending to make these other recommendations possible. The SCMR was insufficiently ambitious in its "back office" savings; the Stimson report says savings of $20 billion a year should be possible, which is roughly three times the savings SCMR proposed. And it makes specific recommendations on how to achieve those management savings -- civilian and military personnel reductions, reforms to retirement and health care programs, and a reduction in the number of contractor personnel working directly for the Pentagon.

There should be no crying "wolf": Even with the sequester, Pentagon budgets would still be above Cold War-average defense spending, in constant dollars. And the signers of the Stimson report argue that, with budgets at that level, national security is not threatened.

The Stimson group is, by design, visible; there is also some really interesting thinking at less visible levels. The other report worth flagging is a bluntly realistic review of budgets, strategy, and the global security situation, from a long-time insider in the Pentagon, H.H. Gaffney. He wrote The Future of U.S. Defense while at the Center for Naval Analysis, a think tank linked to the Navy. Gaffney has worked on nuclear and conventional force issues, defense budgets, military assistance programs, and more.

Suffice to say that he's been around the block a few times. So he's got the street cred to write: "No 'strategy,' 'requirements,' 'scenarios,' 'commitment,' 'responsibilities,' 'obligations,' etc. -- all self-assigned, in any case -- have ever determined the defense budget top line. The only 'demand' for the employment of U.S. forces in the world is by the administration-in-office itself." Take that, strategists of the world: We have met the budgetary enemy and they are us...

Gaffney isn't prescriptive, but his description of where we are is certainly outside the conventional wisdom. The world is largely a peaceful place for a large proportion of countries and peoples, aside from Afghanistan and a few terrorists, which will come as a shock to those who argue that global threats have grown. There are fewer civil wars and no major existential threats to the United States, argues Gaffney.

And most of the "global commons" -- space, air, sea, cyber -- is a place nobody patrols and nobody really guarantees militarily. International organizations and treaties do that, not armies. The Navy sails around, but is not and cannot be everywhere -- shipping goes on because it is in everybody's interest, and that includes the Iranians and Chinese.

In this world, the United States still has military superiority, as the Stimson report argues, and that superiority is pretty much unchallenged by anyone else. The major challenges are economic and political, not military, and most of those challenges are here at home (does the political tragedy of the last two years qualify?). We're not going to occupy anyone else soon or build a nation somewhere else. America will remain technologically the best force around, but with a more limited mission than the ones it has been asked to assume in recent years.

Changes in the budget, he argues, will happen in any case, driven by forces external to defense, but they will not change the military or security realities he describes. Future military planning needs to focus on hitting the number, which will be done by shrinking the force.

Gaffney's report is straightforward, clear, informed, and still outside the box as far as the Pentagon is concerned. And way outside the box for the "defenders of defense" on the Hill. But it is solid, worthy reading.

And it suggests a few basic truths: we are our own worst enemy. We come to believe the myths we parrot about the world and the role of our military. When we do, they come back to haunt us. And it is hard to change the perceptual reality that we have built. With budgets shrinking and threats less frightening than we think, a good dose of this kind of outside-the-box thinking is badly needed.

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Gordon Adams

Absurdistan, D.C.

How Republicans are threatening to turn Washington into a failed state.

The budget theater on Capitol Hill just gets more and more complex, intriguing, and -- perhaps above all -- embarrassing. First there was tragedy in August 2011, when Congress passed a budget act that created an undemocratic process, stripping policymakers of responsibility for reductions in both defense and discretionary spending. That was followed by farce -- the Tale of the Fiscal Cliff, if you will -- last winter, when Republicans in the House borrowed votes from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to avoid a market meltdown.

Today, we are faced with a new play, perhaps the "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" play that Polonius spoke of, or the Bard's earlier Comedy of Errors. Certainly, it's making a laughing stock of Congress. Watching Bob Corker verbally assault Ted Cruz on Thursday, Sept. 26, was almost worth selling tickets to see.

To add to the insanity -- we could call this part improv -- the writers keep changing the script at lightning speed even though the play has already begun. First, the Republicans threaten a shutdown if they cannot "defund" (not possible -- most of it is regulations and bureaucratic processes, not discretionary money) something called "Obamacare" (actually largely written by Congress, not by Obama). So government agencies dust off the playbooks on a shutdown, the ones written in the 1990s and rewritten in 2011. But when the Senate calls the GOP's bluff and strips out this provision, the House Republicans start to get cold feet -- the potato is being tossed back to them and, if opinion polls are to be believed, Republicans will pay when a shutdown happens. All of a sudden, the plot doesn't look so good.

Shift the scene, the writers say -- let's talk about the debt ceiling, instead, which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says will arrive on Oct. 17. Let's put Obamacare on that bill. And while we're at it, let's load up the scenery with every other theatrical flat (a piece of scenery meant to represent reality but that is two-dimensional, with no depth) that we have invented in the last two years: tax reform, abolishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, building the Keystone XL pipeline. Let's toss out perhaps as many as 20 pieces of legislation (which, in fact, are best left in the scenery warehouse).

And let's do it right away, they say, instead of wasting time on a shutdown. Oh, sorry, that script was improved onstage -- let's hold the debt-ceiling bill until we can round up enough supporting cast to pass it.

As if the public was going to take more seriously a stage setting that looked like the warped mirrors in a sideshow fun house.

The play will not end soon, sadly. A grand bargain on the budget would be a happy ending, but it is not in the script. It fell apart earlier in September, when the White House found itself talking to the wrong people in the Senate -- bit players who did not have the capacity to make a deal, and had no incentive to do so.

Now, similarly, the play will not end, because there is no enticement to end it. (Rather like Samuel Beckett's Endgame, is it not? Ends up where it started.) The fundamental problem is that of audience: Unrestrained gerrymandering to ensure conservative Republican districts over the past 20 years has led to a House Republican caucus consisting of members who are safe with their Tea Party voters and a handful of Republicans who are terrified of the Tea Party's reaction if they cut a deal. There are many reasons to criticize the Democrats for weak leadership and lack of imagination. But right now, it is the Republicans who look disorganized. The party is fractured and cowering in front of the footlights.

As this display of inept stagecraft continues, it's reasonable to ask: Does it matter? Is the republic safe and secure amid this ridiculous display? Or, as four military service chiefs testified in September, will military readiness and national security be the drive-by victims of this marching troop of actors on the road to nowhere? (OK, my metaphors, not theirs.) As Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, put it, "If the magnitude and speed of the discretionary cap reductions remain, the Army will not be able to fully execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance requirements.… Reductions in force structure and end strength [will happen], which in my view will add significant risk for the Army to conduct even one sustained major combat operation."

Go carefully, too, into this portion of the play. The testimony is before the House Armed Services Committee, whose chair, Buck McKeon, has been warning for two years that the sequester and budget cuts will turn the United States into a second-rate power. The specialty here is kabuki theater or, better yet, an Indonesian shadow play. Members of the committee, playing "members," appear to ask questions, and the service chiefs, playing "chiefs," appear to answer them. It is stylized, designed to elicit the most fervent support of national defense from the "members" and the most fervent pleas to stave off disaster from the "chiefs."

In reality, a sequester is still in rehearsal and will be until January. It will open out of town, while Washington plays out the current runs of Shutdown: The Drama and Debt Ceiling: The Crisis of the Markets. Later this fall, watch for the opening of The Omnibus: Will We Be Saved by the Appropriators?

If rehearsals go well, the Department of Defense (DOD) should know what to expect. It survived Sequester I; it could survive Sequester: The Sequel. Pentagon spending plans for the fiscal year (FY) drama that opens on Oct. 1 already assume that the DOD will get no more money in this coming fiscal year than it has in the fiscal year about to end. If a sequester happens again, it means something like another $20 billion to cut -- hard, but not impossible.

(Now, follow the subtext in the script. The Pentagon keeps talking about $52 billion in cuts if a sequester happens. But that assumes that the president's budget request for FY 2014 is real. What is real is the new sequester level of funding, and that's about $20 billion below the level of funding the department received in this FY after the initial sequester. There is some surreal theater going on here, too, as the financial staff at DOD scrambles around. It's a knockoff of a Pirandello play, this one called Six Financial Planners in Search of an Author.)

We are stuck in the existential land so well described by Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit. The way out is not clear, and for now, the incentives to keep the drama going are strong. And those who might bring down the curtain are not yet visible.

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