Teams of experts game out strategic defense budget cuts

Hoshang Hashimi/AP File Photo

A sound strategy for cutting the defense budget during the next decade requires a willingness to risk short-term readiness to achieve long-term security improvements, says a think tank report.

National security winners in the long-term strategic budgetary exercise performed by competing teams of experts convened this summer through the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments would be special operations forces, cyberspace capabilities, the long-range strike bomber and remotely piloted systems, and survivable undersea warfare systems.

The area most apt to be sacrificed was current-day readiness, said the report titled “Strategic Choices: Navigating Austerity,” released at a press briefing Tuesday. “A near-term reduction in readiness, while not ideal, would be better than the significant additional reductions in force structure, end strength and modernization initiatives otherwise required,” the report said. The participants -- some 70 anonymous employees of the Pentagon, Congress, industry and think tanks -- in essence “chose to take greater risk in the near term in order to reduce longer-term risks.”

Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the center, explained the exercise of cutting $519 billion over two five-year periods assumed “a threat environment in the future that is much more difficult, where it is difficult to project power through traditional means like rolling in impressive power as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Future adversaries will have guided rockets and mortars,” he said, and warfare in the air, sea and space domains will be “increasingly contested.” Another challenge is the Obama administration’s year-old strategy of pivoting to Asia, which requires operating over longer distances via sea, air and cyberspace but fewer ground troops.

“This was not a budget drill but a strategy drill,” said senior fellow Mark Gunzinger. “The Defense Department has said if it were forced to take more budget cuts, it would revisit its long-term strategy,” which was the process this drill imitated.

Participants in the team sessions were guaranteed anonymity so that they could play the role of expert rather than representing their organization’s interest, the authors said. Military pay and benefits were taken off the table so the experts could focus on strategy and set politics aside.

Key lessons from the exercise, the report said, are the need to assess capabilities across the military services; to begin with the strategic end in mind (or “listening to the future,” as Gunzinger put it, rather than trying to make trades to “share pain”); and picking winners first to avoid getting bogged down. “Failing to recognize and make strategic choices,” the report concluded, “is effectively a form of self-sequestration.”

Harrison said he was surprised at the ability of participants to step out of their real-world roles and use their expertise to agree on spending cuts. “The exercise is important for the future from a bureaucratic perspective because of the good insight that people needn’t get stuck in silos defending their home turf. They were more willing to go along with others,” he said.

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