Over time you notice Washington DC has a cyclical nature to it. Just look at the sine wave of the U.S. defense budget over time: crest then trough; crest then trough; repeat. Worthy of note however is that our primary competitor the Chinese Communist Party, is on a different trajectory: this month they announced their 28th consecutive year of increased military spending.
Congress finds itself torn between the twin imperatives to resource defense programs to counter China and the need to reduce annual deficits and total debt to put the economy on a sound path. In that goal, as politicians scrutinize the defense budget to achieve savings and efficiencies, they must ground their expectations in reality.
Identifying ways that the Pentagon can save money and reinvest those funds into needed capabilities and capacity is necessary to confront China. But wanton cuts disguised as “caps”, or “hard choices” and tradeoffs are reckless when the U.S. is being challenged by a threat never before encountered.
Without a doubt, while facing China and economic uncertainty, the U.S. has no funds to spare on capabilities which do little to make the military more lethal and ready. Even though the defense budget is reviewed in great detail annually by Pentagon leaders, the White House and Congress, each brings their own biases to their oversight roles.
Thus, we recently convened an eclectic group of experts and leaders for a multiday examination of the defense budget with the goal of identifying more modern ways of doing business. Among the group were people of varying interests and backgrounds: Congressional staff, former Pentagon officials, representatives from private industry, and other interested parties. While the headlines parodied the effort as “don’t call it a cut,” it is precisely because not enough dollars in the massive defense budget buy direct military capability that the efforts we did identify should be carefully examined.
While our group alternated between strategic changes and tactical line items for review, there were a few broad takeaways that emerged from the effort.
1. Serious defense reform is often the patient work of many years. While it would be nice if there was an EASY button or a line item to rescind for “fraud, waste, and abuse,” that’s not how it works. Like a good ribeye steak, inefficiency, like fat, is marbled within the budget and across programs, accounts, services and agencies.
That’s why when seeking reform, a cleaver shouldn’t be taken to the budget. Rather, a scalpel is needed, letting reformers carefully cut and trim where necessary while avoiding wholesale, reckless cuts and closures of offices and agencies.
2. To effect meaningful change within entrenched defense priorities, coalitions must be built and sustained. These coalitions must span political parties, branches of government and outside advocacy groups in order to raise awareness, pressure lawmakers and show the bipartisan necessity of needed updates to a bureaucracy which has largely operated on autopilot for the last four decades.
3. Almost without fail, there is an upfront cost to change before any meaningful savings can be reaped years later. Not only does modernization require funds to begin, but many good ideas have a time-phased approach to their implementation (see #1 above). Even killing a weapons program today results in termination costs which likely exceed the one-year cost of the contract.
But upfront costs shouldn’t be an impediment to needed change. It’s better to bite the bullet and take the hit now, rather than continue to waste money, priorities, and time.
4. The more money there is to be harvested for other purposes in the defense budget, the harder that change typically is to achieve politically. Some of the major but unpopular ideas the group reviewed were civil service reform, base closures, elimination of select organizations, and financial and accounting systems modernization. These efforts are often stalled due to parochial interests, unionized workforces, and increasingly a defense budget that favors retirees over active duty personnel and needs.
Overcoming political barriers requires coalitions and consensus. Building and sustaining these is critical to beating back entrenched interests and altering the status quo.
5. Not undertaking hard but overdue reforms in the military bureaucracy does not help the troops. Sticking our heads in the proverbial sand does nothing for servicemembers needing quality military housing, defense health care, as well as the overall lethality and readiness of the force.
It’s unhelpful to those in uniform to continue to avoid reform, which will free up funds for reinvestment in the things our military needs (not more bureaucracy and red tape, but credible combat power).
These five main takeaways will guide the proposals that our session explored. We are in the process of refining those ideas, adding research, and refining data. Once finished, we aim to publish a short report showing specific ways that the Defense Department and Congress can do what is necessary in this era of great power competition: enact reforms, find efficiencies and reprioritize programs to achieve a greater level of lethality and readiness. There are few surprises in our findings. The hard work was not in identifying areas to modernize the massive US military bureaucracy but it will be in leading a thoughtful, multiyear effort of overdue change.
About the Authors
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @MEaglen. Eaglen is 19FortyFive Conritbuting Editor.
Thomas Spoehr is a retired Army lieutenant general who serves as the Heritage Foundation’s director for national defense research. While in uniform, he held a number of assignments related to the defense budget, including the Army’s director for Program Analysis and Evaluation; and director, Force Development. He has published extensively on matters of the defense budget, strategy, and reform.