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.)