April 7, 2009 | Commentary on Federal Budget, National Security and Defense

Slow Down Rush To Cut

Completing President Barack Obama's U.S. defense budget request for fiscal 2010 means one thing: making difficult cuts. While specific decisions have yet to be made, Pentagon issue teams are using Office of Management and Budget guidelines to identify which programs to delay, scale back or eliminate.

But they're operating in a serious information vacuum. Any major cuts they recommend are arbitrary until the administration issues its essential second policy instrument following a fiscal blueprint, which is the National Security Strategy. Both, in turn, affect the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which shapes future planning, programming and budgeting decisions. There's one big problem - the QDR won't be released for about a year.

The fiscal blueprint has been released and the National Security Strategy will be out sooner, obviously, but not before Pentagon officials are expected to come up with their recommended cuts. That's why the administration should create a buffer between the demands of the budget calendar and the strategy policy process. Both the initial budget decisions and the conduct of the National Security Strategy should precede the QDR. Only then can the Pentagon teams recommend sensible cuts.

Too often, the requirements of the budget calendar have marginalized the more deliberate policy-making process. Ensuring the policy process is the driving force in defense planning means the secretary of defense must carefully manage the calendar and issue clear directives on how defense budgets will result from the relevant policy-making endeavors.

Ultimately, the QDR should define the essential programmatic building blocks of the overall defense structure and dictate that adequate resources will be devoted to maintaining and, where necessary, creating these building blocks.

The U.S. military should seek to maintain critical capability sets versus contingency planning against specific and potentially unlikely scenarios. No single review can precisely anticipate the full array of operations that the U.S. military may be asked to perform up to two decades in advance.

Strategy always changes faster than force structure. Not every potential threat can be predicted, and it takes many years to acquire the manpower and weapons for a strong military. This requires the U.S. military to plan its forces around a grand strategy and hedge with specific capabilities to meet any future requirements.

These core capabilities - many of which the military possesses today - should be the mainstays of strategic planning. They include: protecting and defending the United States and its allies against attack, air dominance, maritime control, space control, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, the ability to seize and control territory against organized ground forces, projecting power to distant regions, and information dominance throughout cyberspace.

Focusing the QDR efforts will put in place the basic building blocks the military needs to perform necessary operations as they arise. These building blocks must be sufficiently robust and redundant to permit an effective response to surprises.

Unfortunately, it's easy to predict where the defense budget will ultimately be cut. The victim is always modernization. Ironically, a reduced acquisition budget will reduce competition and interdependence among contractors. This, in turn, forces increased costs on the taxpayers.

The modernization account funds next-generation weapon systems, platforms, trucks, ships, helicopters and planes. The major problem is that our men and women in uniform really need these programs and cannot afford a modernization depression. Weakness invites crisis. Military leaders have repeatedly testified that repairing old equipment and buying newer, more technologically advanced equipment will be a top priority for years to come, even after hostilities cease in Iraq and, eventually, Afghanistan.

The services are in a crucial phase of recapitalization and scheduled to field new platforms that will anchor U.S. security for the next generation. This doesn't mean defense spending should be considered a stimulus package, because America shouldn't pay for anything more than the military absolutely needs.

Nor is it to say the Pentagon should be considered a political untouchable. In these challenging times, policy-makers must set priorities, make choices and ultimately negotiate trade-offs. But a decision to undermine military capability and readiness should not be one of them.

Cuts - particularly those without strategic justifications and resulting in a modest and restrained strategy - have consequences. Slashing the defense budget without first conducting a thorough strategic defense review, and without specifying which missions and commitments can be safely abandoned, would be the height of irresponsibility.

The military doesn't need a funding surge, but sustained and predictable long-term investment to rebuild and modernize. The decisions about what specific investments should be made or not should also wait until the proper strategic framework is provided after this year.

Mackenzie Eaglen is the Senior Policy Analyst for defense and homeland security issues in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Mackenzie Eaglen Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in Defense News