Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia/Army

Nothing’s ‘Irreversible,’ But the Pentagon’s New Bureaucracies Aim to Come Close

As budget hearing season gets underway, expect to hear a lot about "irreversible implementation" of changes toward great power competition.

Tucked in the last sentence of a two-page January memo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper coined an unofficial tagline for the 2021 budget request: “irreversible implementation” of the National Defense Strategy, the two-year-old vision that predicts great power competition between the United States and rivals China and Russia.

Listening to top defense officials discuss the $741 billion budget request, one might surmise the Pentagon‘s spending priorities — guided by that defense strategy — are set in stone, inalterable by Congress or a new presidential administration. They’re not.

“Saying ‘it’s irreversible’ is a substitute for saying, ‘We’re really committed,’” Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense spending at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.

But while Congress or a new president could reverse spending priorities, the Trump administration’s multi-billion dollar investments in new weapon technology and the creation of new layers of Pentagon bureaucracy will make it difficult for politicians to alter.

“When you develop a certain trend in strategy, and systems to suit, people have a stake in it and they’re gonna fight for it,” Adams said. “And it’s really hard to reverse it.”

Asked what makes the 2021 budget request “irreversible,” acting Comptroller Elaine McCusker mentioned the creation of the U.S. Space Force, a new branch of the military within the Air Force; and the elevation of U.S. Cyber Command into its own combatant command. It used to be subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command. 

McCusker could also have mentioned other new Trump-era bureaucracies: U.S. Space Command, a space warfare-focused combatant command; the Space Development Agency, an organization with lofty goals to purchase dozens of satellites each year; or the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which coordinates AI efforts across the military.

New organizations, like Space Command, need offices. Lawmakers and development groups and business associations spend a lot of time and money lobbying for military headquarters since they could bring thousands of people to a community and major boost to a local economy. Just this week, a Colorado Springs business association said it would spend $350,000 to lobby to keep U.S. Space Command there.

McCusker did point to Defense Department spending on new technology, including hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. 

“[R]egardless of who is in charge, you would want to have U.S. competitiveness in those areas to face a high-end fight,” she said.

The Pentagon’s 2021 request seeks $3.2 billion for hypersonics, nearly $1 billion for AI (plus an additional $1.7 billion for autonomy), and $9.8 billion for cyber.

That trio of priorities is frequently referenced by the CEO of major defense firms.

“We feel really good about our growth opportunities in hypersonics,” Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson said Wednesday at an investors conference in Miami. 

Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are among the large defense companies that are working on Pentagon hypersonic weapons projects.

“Hardware programs grow constituents and the constituents are invested in the hardware programs,” Adams said. “When you’ve got programs that are dedicated to particular types of missions — drones for chasing terrorists for example — you’ve got a confluence of folks who have got a stake.”

On its most recent quarterly earnings call, Lockheed executives touted Congress’ adding $3.5 billion in funding for its projects — money not requested by the Pentagon.

“If [DoD] can pour a bunch of money into AI and cyber and hypersonics and electronic rail guns and who knows what else, it becomes irreversible if there’s enough money there to build a stake,” Adams said. “It has nothing to do with the will of the [defense] secretary about the strategy. It has a lot to do with the stakeholders buying in.” 

Republicans and Democrats have struggled to trim staff sizes at military headquarters, but that has routinely proven a difficult task.

“In general, because it’s hard to fire them, what the services do is reverse it by attrition,” Adams said. “If you don’t backfill, you reduce the size of the force, but you haven’t fired anybody.”