Think Before You Cut

Ten simple rules for how to slash the Pentagon's budget without endangering U.S. national security.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Over the next six months, somewhere between $400 billion and $1.15 trillion dollars in national security spending will likely be cut from the U.S. budget. The numbers are so staggering that they almost defy imagination, but this is the cold, hard reality that must be faced. And the stakes are huge: How America’s national security leaders approach the debate over these defense cuts will do much to determine whether the United States remains capable of sustaining its global commitments in the coming decades.

The discussion so far does not inspire confidence. Politicians and pundits are still debating whether defense cuts are warranted — an argument that ignores the fact that the debt-ceiling deal has already sliced $400 billion from national security. Like it or not — and to be clear, I don’t like it at all — this train has already left the station. And the only thing standing between another $750 billion in mandatory cuts is the slim hope that the new congressional "supercommittee" will show the gumption to focus on the tough tax and entitlement reforms necessary to solve the deficit problem and that the rest of Congress will show the maturity to approve such a reform package. Unfortunately, Congress’s actions so far indicate its failure to do so is not just possible, but likely.

At the same time, the other focus of the discussion has jumped to which defense programs should be cut. Whether it is in think-tank reports, budget proposals, or politicians’ and flag officers’ speeches, various plans are being aired that describe certain military programs as "wasteful" or "critical" and therefore should or should not be eliminated. This, however, puts the cart before the horse. The United States shouldn’t jump into arguing over specific warplanes, brigades, or aircraft carriers before locking in the principles that will guide how to go about it smartly. The process policymakers decide on now will determine the outcome and whether the cuts to the defense budget represent a successful exercise in strategic reorientation or end up hollowing the military and endangering vital U.S. national security objectives across the globe. Here are 10 suggested rules to guide the coming decisions.

1. First, cut the chatter.

There is such a thing as too much transparency at this stage of the debate. Any honest examination of what programs to cut must start by putting everything on the table. Doing so, however, will provoke a drastic amount of hand-wringing among not just those in the defense industry, but also those inside the military and Defense Department, who will feel under direct threat of losing not just their budgets but even their jobs. This has already started to debilitate morale. It is also causing national security leaders to begin to develop internal coalitions and external lobbying groups designed to protect various pet programs.

Before any final decisions are made, policymakers should be freed to float options without having them see the light of day and torn apart before they are placed in the largest context of a comprehensive plan. In a previous budget drill, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates required key members of his staff to sign non-disclosure agreements. It horrified defense-industry lobbyists, but proved to be effective. A similar step may now be required for the offices and committee staff responsible for this round of national security cuts.

2. Focus on effectiveness, not efficiency.

Yes, the national debt has been allowed to develop into a serious national security issue. Policymakers, however, shouldn’t lose sight of other national security concerns that still require men and women willing to go into harm’s way. We must not forget that their fighting spirit and capability are also a national strategic concern.

A process that is myopically focused on the bottom line could thus be just as significant a threat to U.S. national security as the deficit. U.S. policymakers must guard against "cost-cutting" becoming the holy grail that senior leaders aspire to in the upcoming process.

National security leaders should stop painting defense cuts as an externally forced exercise in "efficiency" and instead note that it is an opportunity to construct an internal strategy that focuses on "effectiveness." Whereas efficiency is about "trimming fat" — seeking to achieve the very same output with slightly less inputs — effectiveness is about getting the right things done in the best possible manner. Both the means and the ends have to matter in how the country approaches this effort.

3. Question 20th-century assumptions about warfare and U.S. national security.

President Barack Obama has said that the United States must couple defense cuts with "a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world." That’s smart thinking — but it’s also an indictment of the bureaucratic empire of strategy shops across the national security establishment, which were supposedly already tasked with this job.

Living up to the president’s words will require a hardheaded assessment of changes in warfare and U.S. national security needs. It is time to admit that there are some areas where the emperor has no clothes and we must therefore question further spending on his wardrobe.  For example, the United States has spent more money on ballistic missile defense (over $150 billion) than the entire Apollo space program, which took a man to the moon. Even given the best-case scenario for the program’s success — which is far from assured, given that seven out of 15 tests so far have failed — the system will still be insufficient to stop a barrage of Russian or Chinese missiles that actually can reach the United States, and has dubious value against a country such as Iran, whose missiles still cannot reach the U.S. homeland. And yet, Congress is still planning an increase to the annual ballistic-missile defense budget, raising it to $8.6 billion.

In other cases we will have to be willing to re-examine how we organize ourselves.  Instead of framing every choice as a dilemma of which programs to eliminate or not, we should ask what are alternative force mixes that might give commanders a more effective tool kit in a wider set of contingencies? So, for example, when it comes to American air power, the question is not a simple matter of F-35 yea or nay, as now is being framed in a raft of articles. Rather, bring in the operational commanders and planners and explore alternative options. What might a theater commander do with a squadron of 13 F-35s versus the option of eight F-35s, two F-18 EF Growler electronic warfare/strike aircraft , four MQ-9 Reapers, and one Global Hawk spy plane — and the extra $182 million in savings?

This also means challenging cherished assumptions that might no longer stand up to scrutiny. The U.S. Army, for example, is embroiled in two draining counterinsurgency campaigns and is preparing for a future that mixes more limited versions of such counterinsurgency efforts with more traditional missions. And yet, it maintains a whopping 5,795 main battle tanks, over triple the number that the U.S. military employed during the 1991 Gulf War. Even the most ardent tank fan doesn’t contemplate any modern ground invasion on the scale of the 1991 war, let alone a conflict several times larger.

More importantly, even if the United States was somehow get into three simultaneous 1991-style Gulf Wars, it simply does not have the logistical ability to deploy them in such scale. The massive supply of U.S. tanks also ignores the growing use of virtual programs and linked simulators for training, which have changed the number of tanks needed on hand. In short, the United States is spending money on systems than it can never actually use.

The Army is not the only culprit here. The Air Force currently plans to buy 30 "new" propeller-driven light attack aircraft that are actually based on old World War II-era technology, which the Air Force’s own chief of staff said won’t be allowed into combat. The Navy is similarly unable to explain any concept of operations for its new littoral combat ship, other than as an overpriced way to capture drug runners. And the Marine Corps remains unwilling to bridge the disconnect between its amphibious warfare plans and the actual number of ships to support its effort.

But perhaps the best example of the need to re-examine assumptions is the massive sums still devoted to the nuclear weapons complex. We still only consider this issue in terms of potential negotiations with Russia, the country that lost the Cold War. The United States spends over $25 billion annually to maintain some 5,500 nuclear warheads, well past its current and future strategic needs. Whether it is shaving off 275 or 550 or more warheads — with an accompanying $1.25 billion to 2.5 billion a year in savings — the result would be not a strategic loss but a strategic gain, as costs cut from there could be used to protect other parts of the defense budget. Policymakers have to be willing to ask what additional security does the 5,226th nuclear warhead buy us that couldn’t be better spent on actual, usable military capabilities elsewhere?

4. Achieve intellectual buy-in from senior defense leaders and experts.

The recent debt-ceiling deal occurred during a transition in leadership at the Pentagon and was conducted primarily by negotiators who proved to be skilled at playing a fiscal game of chicken but little else. It wasn’t just the rushed nature of the deal that led to some seriously bad choices, but the fact that the appropriators and their staffs made decisions of national security consequence without substantial input from senior defense leaders. U.S. policymakers must do everything possible to avoid repeating this mistake in the coming negotiations.

Fiscal experts may know tax policy, but they don’t know national security, and vice versa. In modeling itself after the various bipartisan debt-advisory commissions, there is a danger that the supercommittee may offer a range of defense programs to cut without the expert analysis to back up those decisions.

Engaging with those who understand U.S. defense needs and look at military programs beyond the raw budget numbers is therefore vital to the process. This will not only result in better decisions, but ultimately shape the way decisions are digested by the military itself. The choice may well come down to a "revolt of the generals" that tries to sink any cuts versus a supportive leadership that can explain why key decisions were made and how they ensure the long-term health and stability of the military and the country it serves.

5. Follow Sutton’s law.

Defense Undersecretary Ashton Carter is fond of recounting prolific bank robber Willie Sutton’s famous response when asked why he robbed banks: "Because that’s where the money is."

In the discussions of potential defense cuts, policymakers too often frame cuts in terms of particular weapons or units — how much the United States might save by cutting one aircraft carrier or one brigade combat team, for example. But this is the equivalent of planning to rob a drugstore when the bank is next door.

For every 30 cents the United States spends on buying weapons, it spends 70 cents on maintaining them. The Pentagon also spends $80 billion a year on installations expenses — the cost associated with owning, running, powering, and cleaning the world’s largest portfolio of real estate. This is even before addressing the costs of military personnel and their benefits, which outstrip all other sectors of defense spending and are in major need of update from their current 1950s-era model. Any serious plan to cut defense spending should focus on these areas first.

6. Understand that it’s sometimes necessary to spend money to save money.

Businesses instinctively understand the concept of a "loss leader" — a product that is sold at a low price to stimulate purchases of another good in order to boost total revenues. For example, grocery stores might keep the price of milk low and lure in customers, replacing any losses in higher cereal sales.

Similar parallels exist in the defense industry. The Pentagon spends roughly $15 billion a year on energy, with gasoline costs alone up 225 percent over the last decade. But many efforts to develop efficiency refits and alternative energy, which could reap substantial long-term savings, are off the table in the current budget environment. An effective strategy must recognize that in some circumstances, especially when it comes to energy and infrastructure, short-term spending can yield far greater long-term savings.

Research and development, which is consistently targeted for disproportionate cuts, is another common victim of this mistake. Cutting R&D not only cuts off promising military capabilities, but it also denies the United States the next potential technological breakthrough like the Internet or clean energy that could reverberate across the broader economy.

7. Interdependence is a friend; redundancy is an enemy.

The military still functions and purchases equipment as a series of branch offices rather than one enterprise. This is evident in the service-wide overlaps in aviation, transport, and fire support, as well as the growing portfolio of defense intelligence agencies that are increasingly hard to tell apart. The process will need to look not only at what programs cost, but what they deliver.

This is not just a matter of avoiding redundancy, but also of learning across the services. The Army, for example, has figured out how to train noncommissioned officers to fly many of the very same unmanned aerial systems as the Air Force for far less in personnel costs — lessons the Air Force is less than excited about learning. In turn, the Army rejects the Air Force’s method of deploying the very same systems, even though it would reduce its deployment costs by as much as a third.

8. Keep your friends inside the tent.

The United States spends so much on defense because it is a global power that leads a global network of alliances. But too often, the United States doesn’t consult with trusted allies sufficiently, missing opportunities to pool resources and accrue shared savings.

This is an issue particularly relevant to U.S. cooperation with NATO allies in areas like anti-submarine warfare, air defense, electronic warfare, search and rescue, and mine warfare. It is also worth recognizing in the shift toward "AirSea Battle" doctrine in the Pacific, a new concept designed to counter advances in anti-ship and anti-air capabilities being developed by a certain large Asian power that must not be named.

This doctrine depends on allied cooperation, but so far has left U.S. allies out of the discussion. The United States should also recognize that, for all its frustration with allies shrinking their defense spending, they have learned lessons from the experiences that might inform the U.S. process, even though they should not be repeated in full.

The United States must also deliver a tough message to its allies about the burdens they are expected to bear. Just as redundancies abound within the U.S. military, they exist in spades across the U.S.-led alliance system. National security leaders must make clear that our partnerships can’t keep replicating capabilities that allied militaries also have, but that only the United States is willing to use. America’s allies need to understand the new choice they face: Get into the game, pay for someone else to act, or see the free ride end.

9. Learn to live with strategic risks.

The looming defense cuts will be particularly painful for the military not just because of their scale, but because the defense budget has known nothing but growth for the last 10 years. But budget cutters must understand that the military’s yelps of pain are not mere carping. The past decade’s growth has not yielded a massive amount of fat or unneeded new capabilities. There are real risks at stake.

It is in vogue to argue that the present challenge of defense budgeting can be resolved by simply returning the country to pre-9/11 spending levels. This argument, however, ignores three key factors. First, much of that extra spending was burned up in massive demands made on the military, which are still ongoing. Roughly 65 percent of that spending went to operations, not modernization. The military, therefore, does not enjoy a surplus of shiny new toys, but instead suffers from serious recapitalization needs for vehicles and systems already well past their expected service lives.

Secondly, warfare has evolved in the last decade, so needs and technologies that were nascent back in 2001 (such as unmanned systems or cybersecurity) are very real now. The 2001 budget, for example, didn’t need to support the operations of Cyber Command or the more than 7,000 unmanned air systems and 12,000 unmanned ground vehicles now in the inventory. And finally, the United States has enduring commitments across the globe — most notably to its allies in the Pacific — that, regardless of the poor decisions made on wars of choice in the Middle East, have only grown in scale and complexity as the threat environment there has changed.

Bringing America’s financial house in order is achievable, but we must recognize that it will come with serious tradeoffs in U.S. military capabilities. Fortunately, there is a good chance the United States can weather this storm with its global influence intact. For all the talk of an "era of persistent conflict," the United States still controls the scale of its commitment in every single conflict in which it is currently engaged.

What’s more, none of the conflicts facing the United States threaten its fundamental, core national interests. When it comes to those threats that might do so in the future, such as the shifting balance of power in the Pacific, there remains time to mitigate them over the long term. Therefore, any process should not just focus on current needs, but also identify which capabilities, if cut, can be quickly restored if the threat environment alters, which capabilities require a longer period of time, and which capabilities might be irrevocably lost if they are cut now. The U.S. military, for example, has proved its ability to rapidly add and train high-quality personnel in a matter of years, but a world-class defense lab system, once shuttered, cannot be built back in a matter of decades.

10. Appreciate that the military budget will have to adapt to real-world events.

There is a famous saying in military circles that those wrestling with how to cut the budget would do well to remember: "No plan survives first contact with the enemy."

Whether it is an unexpected attack like 9/11 or natural disasters that soak up planned operations budgets, any strategic process must recognize that it exists in the real world. Situations might change and the military might be asked to take on a role or mission that wasn’t specified in any planned fiscal-year budget. The British government, which recently joined the war in Libya just a few months after completing its strategic review, is only the latest world power to have to wrestle with this fact.

This is why a clear framework of priorities must underscore any budget-cutting plan. By explicitly outlining the assumptions underneath the new budget and the U.S. military’s expected commitments, it will be easier to change the plan in the event that any assumptions or priorities change. Otherwise, the result will be the sort of ad hoc action that got the United States into this mess in the first place.

Decisions made in the weeks and months ahead not only will shape the U.S. military for the coming years, but also potentially determine its very status as a global power. With the stakes so high, going into this process with clear eyes and clear priorities is a must.


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