February 14, 1997

February 14, 1997 | Executive Memorandum on National Security and Defense

Clinton's "No-Win" Defense Budget

The Clinton Administration has presented its defense budget request for fiscal years 1998 through 2002. While the amount requested for defense is $19 billion higher in budget authority than sought last year, it is still inadequate to fund the current defense policy, which was established after the Pentagon's now-discredited 1993 Bottom-Up Review. President Clinton's new budget falls about $105 billion short of fully funding the forces that this Administration's review identified as necessary to defend American security and freedom.

This refusal to pay for the defenses which the President says the nation needs will produce unacceptable choices for the nation's security. The only way that Clinton's five-year defense budget can fund forces of the size necessary to meet U.S. security commitments abroad is for the Administration to make cuts in combat readiness and modernization of weapons and equipment. Making such trade-offs in the defense budget, however, will lead to one of three possible outcomes. It could:

  • Reduce the size of the force to levels below those necessary to meet U.S. security commitments
    This would save money and allow the Pentagon to pay for a smaller force. However, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, shortly before he left office, told reporters that the existing force "is about the minimum required to allow the United States to be able to maintain its role as a global power." Clinton's proposed budget will not pay for this force. If the current budget is followed, U.S. forces will fall to a level which even Clinton's own Secretary of Defense regards as inadequate.
  • Weaken the combat readiness of the force
    One way to fund the force recommended by Secretary Perry would be to reduce spending for combat readiness.
  • Relinquish America's lead in military technology Another option would be to maintain force size and readiness at the expense of modernization. This is the option currently being pursued by the Clinton Administration. The defense budget outlined by the Clinton Administration would slash spending on the procurement of new weapons and equipment. Procurement spending, in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, is roughly one-third of what it was in FY 1985. The current budget defers the start of needed annual increases to the procurement budget for another year. The result will be that America will continue to lose the technological lead which is a key to low-casualty victories on the battlefield.

This is a "no-win" defense budget: All of the possible outcomes will be injurious to U.S. national security. After four years of refusing to come to terms with the problem of national defense, the Clinton Administration has chosen once again to kick the can down the road, leaving the coming defense budget crunch to be solved at some later time.

How Defense Budgets Drive Defense Policy Reviews

The origins of this defense budget conundrum began in 1993, when the Clinton Administration launched its Bottom-Up Review (BUR) of the nation's defense needs. After a promised serious examination of the forces needed to meet emerging threats to America's national security, the Clinton Administration subsequently refused to provide the funds necessary to pay for these forces. In fact, Clinton's long-range defense budget plan already had been established by the time the BUR was completed. As a result, the Bottom-Up Review had virtually no impact on the defense budget. The BUR was not, as promised, a policy driving budgets, but the other way around. The Administration decided how much it wanted to spend on defense, and then ignored the policy conclusions of its own defense review.

The same thing may happen with yet another Pentagon defense study -- the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Essentially another Bottom-Up Review of America's long-range defense requirements, the QDR will not be completed until December 1997. However, Clinton's FY 1998 defense budget contains funding projections until 2002 -- the period for which the QDR is supposed to be setting policy.

This situation presents the managers of the Quadrennial Defense Review with an untenable dilemma. Either they ignore the defense budget submission, and risk repeating the funding errors found in the Bottom-Up Review, or they conduct the QDR as a mere budget exercise, devoid of any policy guidance. A policy-empty budget exercise is not what Congress envisioned when it created the Quadrennial Defense Review in 1996. As the law states, "The [Quadrennial Defense Review] shall include a comprehensive examination of defense strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, and other elements of the defense program and policies with a view toward determining and expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a revised defense program through the year 2005." This law was passed precisely because Congress had been disappointed with the Bottom-Up Review and was demanding that Clinton's defense budgets finally be brought in line with the Administration's own stated policy objectives.

A more responsible defense budget proposal would have recognized this dilemma forthrightly and refrained from pretending that the long-range plan is settled. The Administration should have presented a defense budget that fully funds the existing defense policy represented by the Bottom-Up Review. This would have been an act of good faith signaling that the Administration would not ignore the Quadrennial Defense Review as it did the BUR. Since a new review is expected to be completed in December, the Administration also should have informed the managers of the QDR and Congress that it expects them to draft a new defense budget to reflect the findings of the QDR.

Averting the Defense Train Wreck

America's defenses are heading for a train wreck unless more discipline and rationality are brought into the defense planning process. To avert this disaster, the Congress has several tools at its disposal. It could, for example:

  • Adopt a budget resolution based on fully funding the Bottom-Up Review force
    Despite its shortcomings, the force recommended by the Bottom-Up Review is established policy. Until it is formally replaced by the Quadrennial Defense Review, Congress should fund the Bottom-Up Review force. Because the QDR will soon overtake the BUR, however, Congress should recognize that only the FY 1998 provision of the budget resolution will be permanent. To fund the BUR force, this year's budget resolution should recommend a defense account that is $16.6 billion in budget authority more than the Clinton Administration's FY 1998 request and about $105 billion more for the five-year period covering fiscal years 1998 through 2002.
  • Adopt report language to accompany the budget resolution demanding that the Clinton Administration not allow the Quadrennial Defense Review to be prejudiced by its FY 1999-2002 defense budget proposals
    This is necessary to ensure that the QDR is not simply a budget-driven exercise, but rather a true assessment of America's national security needs. Furthermore, this year's budget resolution report could include language stating that Congress intends the Quadrennial Defense Review to produce a budget recommendation for the years beyond 1998 that is truly consistent with the QDR's recommendations. This language will make it clear that Congress expects the QDR to follow the law, and to match a defense budget with stated force requirements.

The Clinton Administration has boxed this nation's defense into a corner. If current defense spending trends continue, the U.S. will have no choice but to reduce overseas commitments, cut back on combat readiness, or lose the technological lead that has been the key to past victories on the battlefield. America deserves better than these "no-win" options. It deserves a winning policy that will enable America's armed forces to prevail in war with as few casualties as possible.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy