If the Pentagon wants to solve its budget problems, it's going to have to solve its communication problem first.
For years, the Defense Department has been trying to explain to Congress why the sequester's military budget cuts are a threat to national security. But thus far, it hasn't gone well.
When they were fighting the 2013 cuts, Pentagon officials opted for colorful language, describing the upcoming cuts as "fiscal castration" or "a doomsday mechanism." But they would also illustrate their points with a slew of Pentagon buzzwords. Officials would insist, for instance, that the cuts would harm military "readiness," often without explaining exactly how they would degrade the military's ability to fight.
None of that persuaded Congress to spare the Pentagon from the sequester, but this week marks the start of another attempt. The Pentagon offered up a pared-down $496 billion budget proposal for next year, some $45 billion less than what it originally expected. It is facing hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of additional reductions in the coming years.
And as Defense officials fight for funding—to the tune of $115 billion above the caps Congress imposed over five years—they remain plagued by the communication failures of their past, but they're determined to find a more effective way forward.
Their first step: acknowledging their past approach failed.
"We aren't communicating. We were not able to communicate the impact of sequester last year," acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox told an audience Wednesday at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. "Because we talked about readiness, and nobody knows what readiness is.... We go into Pentagon-speak, I get it."
Pentagon officials are already taking a new tack on their informational charm offensive: a little straight talk.
It's not just that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed his budget proposal a full week before the giant tome lands on lawmakers' desks on March 4. His deputies—Fox, his comptroller Robert Hale, and chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall—are all over Washington at industry conferences and think tanks explaining exactly what was cut in the budget, and what was spared, and why.
The Pentagon's budget, too, is finally spelling out exactly what will suffer if Congress does not give them extra money, after years of failing to plan for the worst. For example, the Army, which will shrink by some 40,000 troops in next year's request, could lose another 30,000 troops the following year if the military does not get more money. The Pentagon will have to retire an aircraft carrier; the entire KC-10 tanker fleet will be cut.
After years of vague warnings, the Pentagon's newfound transparency means members of Congress will finally be able to feel the political impact on their districts from defense cuts of this magnitude.
Still, it is not going to be easy to explain to Congress that the tradeoffs in the military's budget for next year are meant to preserve its core ability to fight—even if it means doing away with key programs lawmakers want. Or how the Pentagon is planning for the best, in case lawmakers decide to dole out more money and avert the worst-case scenario in future years. "If we tried harder, we couldn't have made this budget more complicated," Fox said. "There are actually multiple budgets embedded in this submission."
So officials, by their own admission, are adapting in how they talk about the budget pressures.
Fox brought up an NPR interview she did recently as an example. "I talked about having your teenager driving to Ohio in a snowstorm," she said. A parent naturally wants to make sure the teenager can drive, that the car works, and that there's a spare tire if it breaks down, Fox explained. She said she is open to testing out the department's message on focus groups of nonmilitary people.
The Pentagon's next challenge is to convince lawmakers that every pet priority they want to add in the "tightly crafted" budget package means something else officials believe is critical must be removed. Fox said Hagel asked her to put together a "tiger team" armed with facts and strong arguments to defend the budget request.
"We're going to do everything in our power to explain those tradeoffs, if they force us, as they have every year, to keep things we don't want to keep," Fox said. "There's not slop here. We have to take it out somewhere else."
Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, is also becoming aware of how using loaded metaphors and scary language is not necessarily the best alternative to bland Pentagon-speak or acronym soup. Kendall said the department "cried wolf" about the devastation the sequester cuts would wreak before they took hold. "What we did in '13 was sort of the death of 1,000 cuts," he said.
This year, sequestration just got real. The Pentagon in previous years was able to blunt the full impact of the sequester by using funds left over from previous years; delaying potentially billions of dollars' worth of contracts; and taking advantage of changes in the law that gave the department more flexibility. There were few highly visible consequences to the cuts they warned against.
Lawmakers, with some new visual aids, are starting to read the tea leaves—and staking out their priorities. Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is campaigning for the A-10 aircraft the Air Force wants to retire, for instance, and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is seeking Pentagon commitments on the Pave Hawk combat-rescue helicopters.
Now that the cuts are starting to hit close to lawmakers' homes, the Pentagon could finally have a chance to undo them.