A New Deal for Defense

United States Marine Corps

The Pentagon prides itself on solid contingency planning, with one glaring exception: the prospect of reduced funding. Only in recent months did the Defense Department begin to prepare in earnest for this year’s significant budget cuts.

Yes, there are hiring freezes, furloughs, suspension of nonessential
travel, reduced depot maintenance activity, smaller base operating budgets and fewer training exercises. But such measures can be sustained for only a short while. They are emergency measures designed to weather a passing storm. It should be clear by now that the nation’s fiscal and economic tempests will not soon dissipate.

No matter the duration of the sequester  the Pentagon’s budget is surely coming down another notch or two. It would be wise to prepare for a 2014 budget that is $10 billion to $30 billion lower than those of the past few years. After that, defense spending will probably continue to trend downward for a while. That’s simply the reality of the current economic and strategic circumstance. It’s time for defense leaders to plan accordingly.

Some hope that tax hikes can rescue the Defense Department from further fiscal restraint. But even if the government’s share of national income rises, there is a long list of urgent priorities competing for funds—not to mention a mountain of debt to redress. And the broader context for these challenges is a change in the strategic environment that gives greater prominence to the shape of the global economy and the United States’ position in it. This portends a new deal for defense, like it or not.

The surest way to make smaller Pentagon budgets work is to cut military end strength and structure—fewer troops, brigades, ships and aircraft. In the near term this might be managed by reducing the number of soldiers and the size of units routinely stationed or rotated abroad. Force structure also contracts as large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan end.

For the longer term, more is needed: a serious rethink of how to produce, organize and use American power. The fifth Quadrennial Defense Review, due next year, creates an opportunity to draw a blueprint for change. What’s been missing so far is an official commitment to reform that matches the change in America’s strategic circumstances.

So, what should we as a nation minimally expect?

First, defense planning must clearly prioritize those challenges of most concern. Maintaining an excessively large and costly force today does not afford the flexibility to respond to military challenges in the future. It saps it.

Defense leaders must bring greater realism to bear when setting goals for the armed forces. Ill-defined and unbounded missions—like taking the leading role in policing the global commons or attempting to transform nation states—distract the military from tasks it can confidently accomplish at a sensible cost.

As the armed forces grow smaller, defense planners should reengineer their command and support structure. Otherwise, the tail tends to get longer while the teeth get shorter. Consolidating major commands and reducing the number of general and flag officers would be a start. Other priorities are consolidating maintenance depots and systems, basic and flight training programs, service schools, as well as medical, commissary and family services. In addition, there are redundant military bases to close, perhaps beginning overseas, but also here at home.

New security concerns and tighter fiscal constraint warrant a fresh look at the services’ roles and missions. Defense planners should aim to reduce redundancies and improve cooperation. Acquisition is one area that would benefit from moving more authority to the joint level, helping to ensure procurements reflect overall defense needs, rather than service preferences.

None of these changes will come easily. That’s why so many of these sensible reforms were sidestepped in the 1990s during the last drawdown, and with predictable results: a 40 percent increase in the base budget between 1998 and 2009. But money can no longer substitute for political will. What the country now needs from defense leaders in the White House, in the Pentagon and in Congress is less talk of catastrophe and Draconian cuts and more commitment to real reform.

Carl Conetta and Charles Knight are co-founders of the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Center for International Policy.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.