Asia Pivot and Air-Sea Battle: Precipitating Military Competition with China?

by Carl Conetta, 03 March 2014

Will China come to pose a peer military threat to the United States?

The Obama administration’s 2012 Strategic Defense Review and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) turn on this eventuality. Both the so-called “Asia pivot” and the evolving Air-Sea Battle (ASB) operational concept are meant to preclude it. But they may serve to precipitate it, instead.

The Pentagon’s tilt toward Asia finds strong support in the US Navy, while Air-Sea Battle enthuses the Navy and Air Force alike. ASB, and its link to US-China contention, provides a bulwark against defense budget retrenchment as well as a rallying cry for a defense industry that fears a return of Pentagon modernization spending to pre-Iraq War levels.

Whether or not China develops into a peer military rival, it does pose a critical challenge to America’s current defense strategy. Ever since publication of the first QDR in 1997, US strategy has premised itself on global military primacy. All four QDR’s to date have taken primacy to be the cornerstone of American security and, thus, a vital security interest in itself. But the usefulness of this formulation has depended on the unipolar nature of global relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That condition is now coming decisively to an end largely due to the rise of China and other big, rapidly developing nations. Both the Asia pivot and the ASB concept represent efforts to manage this emergent reality and forestall the end of the ‘American Century.’

Also central to the “QDR consensus” has been the notion that the United States should work to prevent the rise of unfriendly regional superpowers or, failing that, join with allies to balance against them. China has been the focus of such efforts in Asia. Its potential for becoming a regional hegemon is readily apparent. Today, China accounts for two-thirds of the total population and 55 percent of the economic strength of the 10 nations that border the Yellow, East, and South China Seas.

Successive US administrations have hoped that a combination of close-in military presence, engagement, and activism might convince China’s leaders to be more accommodating. At the same time, talk of China as an emergent military threat or likely competitor has been ubiquitous in America’s security policy debate (and in QDR’s after 2000.) It’s hard to find evidence that the net effect on the Chinese, if any, has been positive. Indeed, there has been unparalleled growth in Chinese defense spending and modernization efforts since 2001. Also, US-China military tensions may be contributing to rather than dissuading China’s strong and growing interest in exerting more control over its maritime perimeter.

Many analysts see America’s “Asia pivot,” announced in 2011, as largely a change in military priorities. Some additionally question the substance of this military shift. (The Air-Sea Battle concept is subject to similar doubts.)

It’s true that the pivot involves little increase in America’s military presence in Asia. But this is occurring in the context of a longer-term reduction in America’s military presence abroad and a rollback in the overall size of US armed forces to levels current in the late 1990s. Relatively speaking, Asia is being privileged.

The pivot is also continuing a trend toward a more flexible and distributed presence abroad, but with greater emphasis on the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. And it is giving greater emphasis to alliances and cooperation with nations along China’s trade routes south of the Tropic of Cancer. If America’s Asian interests previously centered on Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, they today more evenly mirror the contours of China.

In sum, the pivot is optimizing America’s military posture for Asia and for US-China competition, but doing so within the context of mild reductions in US military spending and force size. Also key to this optimization is the ASB concept.

Like the pivot itself, ASB has a long pedigree. It draws on Cold War concepts of deep attack — especially Air-Land Battle — and reflects more recent interest in net centric warfare and precision attack. ASB responds specifically to the prospect of US adversaries developing capacities to effectively contest or deny US forces safe entry to areas of conflict.

w-airSeahttp://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/what-is-air-sea-battle/2012/08/01/gJQAlGr7PX_graphic.html

Relevant adversary capabilities include anti-ship cruise and theater ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, quiet attack submarines and small fast-attack ships, precision munitions and smart mines, long-range drones and stealthy combat aircraft, and systems for space, cyber, and electronic attack. Networked with these would be relatively sophisticated command, control, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition systems.

Against this, ASB would orchestrate US forces to blind and disrupt enemy networks, destroy or disable enemy launchers, and shield US assets from enemy aircraft, missile, submarine, cyber, and space attack. Central to the concept is early (possibly pre-emptive) deep attacks on an enemy’s homeland. Success in breaking an enemy’s longer-range and maritime “kill chain” would presumably allow the main body of US forces to control and safely operate from areas closer to the enemy homeland, with potentially devastating effect.

The ASB initiative seeks to preserve the type of advantage the United States enjoyed in its two wars with Iraq, which depended on having or establishing secure operating bases nearby. Given significant investment, that goal might be within reach for fighting a nation like Iran. China, by contrast, poses a considerably greater challenge that is further complicated by Chinese nuclear capabilities.

ASB critics have pointed out that the effort so far seems more rhetorical than material. And, indeed, the ASB office is a small one with few modernization programs to call its own. But this misses its chief purpose, which is to promote a unifying vision that shapes, coordinates, and channels already existing service efforts. Today, the ASB concept serves as a rationale for Air Force and Navy modernization programs valued by one study at $525 billion over ten years. These programs include many space, cyber, and missile defense efforts as well as long-range strike and reconnaissance platforms and munitions of many types.

A more prescient critique sees the ASB concept as incompatible with any coherent strategy — essentially, an unusable tool — because it depends on early, large-scale attack on the strategic assets of a nuclear armed nation. Under what conditions would a president walk down this path? As one leading analyst puts it:

You don’t conduct widespread bombing campaigns against the homelands of nuclear powers!

Advocates respond that ASB is not specifically about China. And it is certainly true that the concept has application on smaller scales. Still, the influence that the idea is exerting on Pentagon planning and resource allocation only makes sense with a peer contender in mind.

ASB’s emphasis on early, deep attack with the goal of rendering an adversary vulnerable to the full brunt of American power will likely put a use-it-or-lose-it hair-trigger on US-China military confrontations, should they occur. It will certainly accelerate the current US-China and East Asia arms race spiral. However, as one top Navy official points out, “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.” Achieving a degree of arms race dominance that can actually convince others to quit the race has been a strategic conceit of the QDR consensus since 1997. It apparently doesn’t work.

This also seems out of touch with economic trends and with the fact that China presently devotes much less GDP to defense than does the United States. It has lots of room to grow. Moreover, China’s interest in its maritime perimeter will almost certainly grow to surpass America’s interest in patrolling seas so far distant from its homeland.

There are more practicable alternatives to ASB that emphasize blockading Chinese maritime trade at some distance from the mainland, in the case of war. Some see using America’s own anti-access and area-denial capabilities to impede any Chinese aggression. Both avoid the costs and provocations of deep attack and big battles near the Chinese shore. And both would allow for more graduated responses. Some alternatives suggest stationing more of America’s assets “over the horizon,” where they would be safer from Chinese preemption while retaining the capacity to rapidly surge forward.

But critics say these alternatives might weaken the credibility of America’s military commitment. Moreover, one purpose of credibly threatening to disable China’s maritime defense and control capabilities is to gain more leverage over China generally, not simply in military confrontation.

It may be that the most realistic and sustainable alternative would be to exit the QDR consensus altogether and adopt a more broadly cooperative approach to integrating China and reducing regional tensions. This would imply de-emphasizing new military initiatives while ramping up inclusive diplomatic ones. Success would hinge on the possibility that China’s recent regional assertiveness has more to do with US-China military contention than with intractable regional differences. America’s Asian military posture should reflect the fact that no one wins from conflict in this region. Minimally, this means adopting a posture with lower escalatory potential than Air-Sea Battle.

News and Commentary – sources

China-US Focus: “What Asian Pivot?” Benjamin Friedman, 13 November 2013.
http://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/what-asian-pivot/

The National Interest: “How to Win a War with China,” Sean Mirski, 01 November 2013.
http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/how-win-war-china-9346

The National Interest: “Sorry Air-Sea Battle Is No Strategy,” T.X. Hammes, 07 August 2013.
http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/sorry-airsea-battle-no-strategy-8846

Foreign Policy: “Escalation Cause: How the Pentagon’s New Strategy Could Trigger War with China,” David C. Gompert and Terrence K. Kelly, 02 August 2013.
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/02/escalation_cause_air_sea_battle_china

Breaking Defense: “Glimpse Inside Air-Sea Battle: Nukes, Cyber At Its Heart,” Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., 09 July 2013.
http://breakingdefense.com/2013/07/glimpse-inside-air-sea-battle-nukes-cyber-at-its-heart/

Huffington Post: “Why America’s Strategic Rebalance Is Really Just Retreat,” John Feffer, 28 January 2013.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-feffer/americas-strategic-rebalance_b_4680035.html

Thomas P.M. Barnett blog: “Nice critique of the sheer – and reckless – overkill that is ASBC,” 10 August 2012.
http://thomaspmbarnett.com/globlogization/2012/8/10/nice-critique-of-the-sheer-and-reckless-overkill-that-is-asb.html

Time.com: “AirSea Battle: The Military-industrial Complex’s Self-serving Fantasy,” Thomas P. M. Barnett, 08 August 2012.
http://nation.time.com/2012/08/08/airsea-battle-the-military-industrial-complexs-self-serving-fantasy/

Washington Post: “U.S. model for a future war fans tensions with China and inside Pentagon,” Greg Jaffe, 01 August 2012.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-model-for-a-future-war-fans-tensions-with-china-and-inside-pentagon/2012/08/01/gJQAC6F8PX_story.html

Key Reports and Journal Articles – sources

G2 Solutions: “Air-Sea Battle FY2014: Concepts, Key Programs and Forecast, Executive Summary,” November 2013.
http://www.g2globalsolutions.com/Executive Summaries/Air Sea Battle FY 2014 Exec Sum.pdf

IISS Strategic Comments: “China’s defence spending – new questions,” 02 August 2013 (subscription).
http://www.iiss.org/en/publications/strategic%20comments/sections/2013-a8b5/china–39-s-defence-spending–new-questions-e625

Yale Journal of International Affairs: “Who Authorized Preparations for War with China?” Amitai Etzioni, 12 June 2013.
http://yalejournal.org/2013/06/12/who-authorized-preparations-for-war-with-china/

Air Sea Battle Office: “Air Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges,” May 2013.
http://www.defense.gov/pubs/ASB-ConceptImplementation-Summary-May-2013.pdf

Woodrow Wilson Center: “Dealing with Rising China,” J Stapelton Roy, November 2012.
http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/policy_brief_dealing_with_a_rising_china.pdf

Strategic Forum: “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for An Unlikely Conflict,” T.X. Hammes, June 2012.
http://www.ndu.edu/press/lib/pdf/StrForum/SF-278.pdf

Congressional Research Service: “Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s
Rebalancing’ Toward Asia,” Mark E. Manyin, et. al., 28 March 2012.
https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42448.pdf

U.S. Department of Defense: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 2012.
http://www.defense.gov/news/defense_strategic_guidance.pdf

Foreign Policy: “America’s Pacific Century,” Hillary Clinton, 11 October 2011.
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century

China Leadership Monitor: “China’s Assertive Behavior-Part Two: The Maritime Periphery,” Michael D. Swaine and M. Taylor Fravel, 21 September 2011.
http://www.hoover.org/publications/china-leadership-monitor/article/93591

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment: “Airsea Battle” (slide presentation), Jan Van Tol, et. al., 18 May 2010.
http://www.csbaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2010.05.18-AirSea-Battle-Slides.pdf

Foreign Affairs: “The Geography of Chinese Power: How Far Can Beijing Reach on Land and at Sea?,” Robert D. Kaplan, May/June 2010.
http://www.cerium.ca/IMG/pdf/Kaplan_How_far_can_Beijing_reach_on_land_and_at_sea.pdf

Project on Defense Alternatives: “A Prisoner to Primacy,” Carl Conetta, 05 February 2008.
http://www.comw.org/pda/0802bm43.html

U.S. National War College: “A New Air Sea Battle Concept: Integrated Strike Forces,”
Commander James Stavridis (U.S. Navy), May 1992.
http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA436862

US doesn’t need more defense dollars to ease crisis in East China Sea

Charles Knight, letter to the editor of the Boston Globe, 24 Janurary 2014.

Preventing war with a rising China requires diplomatic wisdom, not additional US military investment. Nicholas Burns (“The trouble with China,” Op-ed, Jan. 16) cites a recent mini-crisis in the East China Sea as a warning sign for “congressional leaders in both parties supporting deep cuts in the State Department and Pentagon budgets.”

However, the modest budget reductions that have been proposed — next year the Pentagon is actually getting a $20 billion raise — would in no way prevent the United States from performing shows of force such as the recent flight of B-52s through China’s newly claimed airspace in the East China Sea. The Pentagon’s budget would have to be cut in half to get close to touching overwhelming US military dominance in the Pacific.

A quick look at a map of the region will reveal that China has critical national interests in unencumbered access to the shipping lanes off its coasts and through the passages to the south. Accommodating these interests is the best path to peace in the long run.

America will be much better served by helping to establish an inclusive cooperative economic and security zone in the region, rather than pursuing an ultimately losing game of indefinitely overmatching China’s military power in its own neighborhood.

The trouble with China: It’s the responsibility of the US to prevent war over East China Sea islands
by Nicholas Burns, Boston Globe, 16 January 2014.

As the White House struggles to cope with a burning Middle East, another vital challenge is arising on the far horizon — China is flexing its muscles with real consequences for America’s future in Asia.

In the East China Sea, the United States worries about a stand-off between our ally Japan and Beijing over conflicting, historical claims to small, uninhabited islands the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyu. China opposes Japan’s ownership of the islands and, in November, announced creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea that directly challenged the right of Japanese, American, and other aircraft to transit airspace in the area without prior notification to Beijing. China has made equally extravagant legal claims in the South China Sea against Filipino and Vietnamese territorial claims.

As my Harvard colleague, Graham Allison, recounts in the National Interest, China’s actions are playing out on a broad historic canvas with Beijing and Washington as the main actors. He reminds us of the “Thucydides Trap”— when, in past centuries, “a rapidly rising power rivals an established ruling power, trouble ensues. In 11 of 15 cases in which this has occurred in the past 500 years, the result was war.”

Conflict between the United States and China is far from inevitable. But the East and South China Seas crises illustrate the American challenge in working with China’s assertive new leadership. The United States and China are partners on a range of issues, from trade to climate change and proliferation. But they are also strategic rivals for power in Asia. That is why the White House should be firm that the United States and its allies won’t be bullied by China’s peremptory and unilateral territorial claims.

The immediate challenge is in the East China Sea. Tokyo defends its long possession of the islands through naval and air patrols while Beijing counters with its own naval vessels and aircraft to contest it. The obvious risk is potential collision by two powerful militaries at sea and in the air. The stakes are very high for the United States as our defense treaty with Japan obligates us to come to its assistance in the event of conflict with China.

The United States has rightly stood by Japan against China’s unilateral claims. Washington is also counseling China to gain better control of the often-willful People’s Liberation Army and submit its territorial claims to international adjudication rather than assert them by fiat and intimidation.

To be fair, however, Washington is also advising Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to lower the temperature in his rivalry with China. His recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals from the Second World War are buried, as well as Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the horrific actions of its military during the Second World War, are unnecessarily provocative to the Chinese, South Korean, and Filipino peoples.

As the United States seeks to keep the peace in the East China Sea, the immediate danger is not so much that Japan or China will decide to launch a war for the islands but that they might stumble into conflict by mistake or miscalculation.

British historian Margaret MacMillan warns of such a risk in a recent Brookings Institution essay. She recounts the improbable and unplanned events that led to the outbreak of war in 1914 in which 16 million combatants and civilians eventually perished. Her essay is a direct warning — we can’t take the current Great Power peace for granted. Human folly, frailty, and hubris could lead the great powers of our time — among them China, Japan, and even the United States — into a conflagration we never believed was possible. “The one-hundredth anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew,” she warned, “on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophe, and sheer accident.”

The East China Sea Crisis and the lessons of World War I remind Americans of a final stark reality — global peace and security still depends on us more than any other country. It is thus essential that we remain the world’s strongest diplomatic and military power. Congressional leaders in both parties supporting deep cuts in the State Department and Pentagon budgets should remember that in Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, we are still, as Madeleine Albright once rightly claimed, the world’s “indispensable” nation.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Reset Defense Bulletin: Small Changes for the Army and Navy

PDA Review
from 20 Janaury 2014 Reset Defense Bulletin

In the last issue of the Reset Defense Bulletin we reported that the Pentagon will likely pass up one of the best options for greater strategic efficiency — that is relying more on a strong and capable strategic reserve for large and medium scale wars.

The size of the Total Army has been declining and will be down by about 100,000 this decade. However, the relative size of the active and reserve components has not yet been decided. Sydney Freedberg in Breaking Defense reports of the National Guard leadership complaining of being cut 10% t0 315,000 while the active component Army is hoping to remain as close to 490,000 as they can. Reportedly many in the Army expect there will be a further 8% reduction (to 450,000) in the active component before the end of the decade. By way of comparison the study Reasonable Defense from the Project on Defense Alternatives calls for 420,000 in the active component and 325,000 in the Guard.

In a sign that the Pentagon may face up to a small part of their fiscal reality, Bloomberg reports that the Navy will order 32 rather than 52 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS).

Navy experts Eric Labs of CBO and Ronald O’Rourke of CRS have long caste doubt the affordability of the Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding plan. Indeed, in an odd budgetary gambit, the Navy has lobbied to get the $90-100 billion cost of replacing their aging ballistic missile subs paid from some Pentagon treasury outside Navy’s regular shipbuilding budget (Frank Oliveri of Roll Call and Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service offer details.) Christopher Preble and Matt Fay suggest that the Navy buy the SSBN[X] with funds saved from eliminating or curtailing the Air Force’s ICBM and Bomber legs of the strategic nuclear posture.

Now it looks like a small portion of the Navy shipbuilding budget deficit will be paid for by producing fewer than planned of the over-budget and under-performing LCS.

Coincidentally, a Defense News editorial praises the flexibility and affordability of frigates, calling particular attention to Denmark’s Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates as “long-range, efficient but highly flexible ships that come equipped with considerable capabilities.” Perhaps the Navy will now replace some retiring frigates with modern frigates proven by allied navies, instead of the much more expensive LCS.

Frigate_Iver_Huitfeldt

Danish Ivar Huitfeldt Class Frigate

There has been several calls for disbanding the Air Force (Carroll, Farley) and for folding its roles and missions back into the other services. This is surely a ‘non-starter’ with a White House that has been consistently reluctant to take on anything held very dear by the Pentagon brass or their supporters in Congress. However, radical proposals such as this one will sometimes open space for discussion of other changes to strategic ambitions and to now calcified service roles and missions — which too often excessively and wastefully overlap. One such area is the strategic triad, jeaslously protected by the Navy and Air Force.

Reuters reports that the Pentagon is considering additional educational and financial incentives for Air Force officers who guard and operate the nation’s ICBM force. There have been a number of recent incidents of misbehavior which has to be worrisome given the extraordinary responsibility these service members have to prevent an unintentional nuclear war. “The scandals are raising questions about how to keep up morale of the force in the post-Cold War era…” Is it possible that the mission of maintaining such a large nuclear arsenal no longer makes good sense to those who are closest to it?

In a related piece Walter Pincus reports:

An unpublished Rand Corporation study done between December 2012 and February 2013 found that those in the nuclear missile force ‘have low job satisfaction and often feel job-related burnout.’

Pincus then laments:

Despite problems among the U.S. strategic nuclear force personnel, questions about the role of nuclear deterrence in the age of growing cyber and terrorist threats, and current budgetary pressures in defense spending, Hagel did not propose that the Obama administration would seek to reduce further the new START level of deployed warheads, cut the number of stockpiled warheads or eliminate one leg of the triad.

Winslow Wheeler has contributed a good analysis and comment on how national security spending fared in the ‘Omnibus’ spending bill that just passed through Congress. Wheeler sums it up this way:

The bill attempts to build a bridge to a future time when higher defense budgets are politically feasible. In the meantime, the congressional appropriators will use gimmicks and dodges to keep spending higher while appearing to be lower.

Defense News provides a summary of how appropriators added more than $5 billion to Overseas Contingency Operations funding to cover procurement and other items that didn’t get funded in the base budget. As a consequence of this maneuver, ‘war spending’ is actually rising in the year that the Afghan war is supposed to end.

There are links to all the literature cited above in the 20 Janaury 2014 Reset Defense Bulletin.

“Omnibus” Information and Commentary: What Did the Appropriators Really Do to Defense Spending?

by Winslow T. Wheeler
16 January 2014

Summary of Findings:

In the so-called “war-related,” Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account of the 2014 Omnibus, there is a DOD program spending increase of $10.8 billion above what President Obama requested. This has been misreported as a “$5 billion” increase. The OCO account should be re-titled the War Pretext Slush Fund.

In the “base” portion of DOD spending, up to $7 billion is un- or poorly justified, arbitrary across-the-board cuts, most of them directed against O&M spending, which can only have a negative impact on military readiness. Moreover, these kinds of a-t-b cuts are precisely the sort of thing DOD and Congress vociferously criticized in the sequestration process.

There are also $10.7 billion in mostly specific programmatic cuts in Procurement and R&D portions of the bill, but it is possible that their primary effect will be to simply defer, if not increase, future costs.

Overall, the DOD section of the Omnibus should not be seen as an effort by Congress to return defense spending to lower, let alone pre-war, levels. Instead, it can be seen as a rear guard action by high defense spending advocates in Congress to keep the Pentagon budget as high as possible.

Discussion and Analysis:

This week by large bipartisan majorities, the House and Senate are passing HR 3547, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 (better known as the “Omnibus”). It appropriates discretionary spending for diverse agencies of the federal government for the balance of fiscal 2014. Division C of the bill contains funding for the Pentagon, not including military construction which is in a separate part of the bill. The bill text is accompanied by a “Joint Explanatory Statement” (JES) that contains more useful details-but which does not explain nearly as much as it should.

Some in Congress, the press and think tanks exult that we are witnessing a return to “regular order” after the chaos of Congress’ dysfunctional government shutdowns followed by giving most agencies “continuing resolutions,” which hold spending for individual programs mostly to the previous year’s spending level, no matter how impracticable that might be. While the House and Senate may have been able to get past the dysfunction of refusing to enact appropriations bills, the actual contents of the Department of Defense (DOD) portions of the Omnibus reveal that a much dysfunction remains.

The dysfunction simply comes in a different form: that of deceptive, arbitrary and misleading budget activities. These behaviors mask actual spending levels in DOD, and they can incur even larger future costs while pretending to promote economy. They constitute an effort to keep Pentagon spending as high as possible, now and in the future, even if some proclaim that DOD spending is plummeting downward, even dangerously.

To explain, some background and analysis are required.

Based on the available data from the Congressional Budget Office, we know the following:

· National Defense spending in the Pentagon and related agencies (the so-called 050 budget function) was $518 billion in 2013.

· Equivalent spending in the new “Omnibus” for 2014 is $520.5.

· Add to these amounts the money for the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere. $82 billion was provided in 050 accounts for 2013. $79.4 billion was requested by President Obama for 2014, but this is being increased by Congress to $85.2 billion, an apparent “plus-up” of $5.8 billion (which is sometimes misreported as $5 billion).

· Thus, the total amount for 2013 was $600 billion; the total amount for 2014 is $605.7 billion.

Some in the press report this increase as a decrease. Eager to pretend the Pentagon is under some sort of austerity regime, they compare the $605.7 billion for 2014 as a huge cut from Obama’s original 2014 request of $640 billion. However, that request that was dead on arrival in Congress, and it constitutes only a cooperative “baseline” for politically driven comparison purposes. According to a budget analyst frequently consulted by the Washington press, the widely respected Todd Harrison at the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments, defense spending at the newly decided 2014 level exceeds every defense budget during the Cold War, including the wars in Korea and Vietnam, with the only exception being the very peak of the Ronald Reagan era. To call $605.7 billion for defense in 2014 anything but a historic high (especially in the absence of an existential threat from the Soviet Union) disregards almost 70 years of post-World War Two defense budget history.

Others look at a different defense budget baseline that might have been: the $498 billion for the non-war parts of defense spending that the sequestration process from the Budget Control Act of 2011 would have imposed. They assert the $520.5 for National Defense in the Omnibus is a huge, $22.5 billion, increase. While they too are making comparisons to spending levels that never occurred, they are far more accurate than those proclaiming Pentagon budgetary Armageddon. The reason is the deceptive practices by congressional appropriators in the Omnibus.

WAR-PRETEXT SLUSH FUND

By parsing through the documents that the Appropriations Committees released this week on their Omnibus, especially the JES, it is apparent that the plus-up they gave to DOD in the war-related portions of the DOD budget is far larger than the $5.8 billion that is apparent from the math (comparing the $79.4 billion request to the $85.2 billion appropriation).

To explain, note first that the appropriators took a few billion dollars out of the OCO fund. They removed $1.7 billion out of the amounts requested for military personnel. They also nixed a request of $3.1 billion for something called the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund and the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, declaring the need in the former “greatly overstated.” They also cut the notoriously ineffective Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Fund by $130 million; they reduced a classified program by $58 million, and they made other smaller miscellaneous cuts. It all totals something just over $5 billion.

Then they added: $50 million for MRAP vehicle modifications, $90 million for a new CV-22 Osprey, and then came two mother loads. $9.3 billion was added for the various Operation and Maintenance (O&M) accounts of the military services, and $1 billion was added for equipment for the National Guard and Reserves. There were also various small miscellaneous adds.

In sum, the House and Senate appropriators cut Obama’s OCO account by over $5 billion, and then they added $5.8 billion to the requested amount. The full plus-up for DOD in the OCO fund is $10.8 billion, more than double the “$5 billion” reported by the some in the press.

The two biggest additions have little to do with “war-related” activities, however. Every bit of the $9.3 billion added for O&M in the OCO account was transferred from the “base” (non-war) parts of the bill. The appropriations committees were simply transferring money from the “base” accounts to the OCO accounts.

Because the Budget Control Act of 2011 and subsequent congressional budget deals put a cap on 2014 “base” Pentagon spending, the appropriators were simply creating a hole there into which they could pour more money (more on this later). They had reason to do this because the past budget deals put no cap whatsoever on the OCO accounts: in budget-gimmick terms; it’s all free (uncapped) money.

It is a loophole quite consciously created by the congressional budget negotiators, and it is not new. The basic gimmick is decades old, and today’s appropriators are using it to the hilt, surely motivated by the assertion that DOD suffers from “austerity.” Routine peacetime O&M money magically becomes “emergency” and “war-related,” and it all happens to be unconstrained under existing budget rules. That the purpose for which the money is used does not change one iota is immaterial.

The pretext is even clearer in the $1 billion fund created for equipment for the National Guard and Reserves. The added hardware in this account includes aircraft countermeasures and equipment to face an enemy that has no air defense, chemical and biological warfare equipment for a theater that includes no chem-bio warfare, new AESA radars for aircraft that will not need it in Afghanistan, forklifts and even “high-density storage cabinets.” So much for “war-related.” This perennial plus-up, usually added to the base portions of defense bills, is put in the OCO fund simply because money there does not count under budget caps, pure and simple.

The OCO account is not an emergency war fund; it is and should be known as a War-Pretext Slush Fund.

(The Congressional Research Service used to report almost annually on war spending, pointing out previous transgressions against the belief that it was for emergency, war needs only; however, those reports stopped coming out a few years ago, and we remain in the dark about what other portions in the OCO account don’t belong there.)

BASE BUDGET LEGERDEMAIN

This sort of gaming continues in the “base” parts of the DOD portions of the “Omnibus” appropriations bill.

In addition to the $9.3 billion promiscuously transferred to the so-called “war-related” account, there are many other cuts in the “base” bill. Some of them are actual program reductions: for example, the various procurement and R&D accounts for the F-35 program were cut by a grand total of $1.1 billion-a not inconsiderable amount.

But there are some shady reductions as well. Section 8109 declares a savings of $380 million due to “favorable foreign [currency] exchange rates.” An old and tired gimmick, the appropriators are pretending they can predict exchange rates out to September 2014 with great precision. If you have a financial adviser who claims he can do that, fire him; it is pure speculation.

The appropriators also declare a savings of $866.5 million due to “excess cash balances in Department of Defense Working Capital Funds.” These are accounts to pay internal and contractor bills; the money is not excess forever; they simply don’t need it right now, they think. The need for the money is not going away; it is simply being deferred. There is no real, lasting savings; they are mostly kicking the can to future years.

There are also $527 million in “undistributed” unobligated balances. “Undistributed” means they don’t know what program to apply them to; they’re usually guessing or using a computer model (which is not much better) to take away these funds that simply have not yet been spent-but for which there is usually a plan to do so.

There are $2.7 billion in reductions labeled “Program Adjustment to Non-NIP Only.” Nowhere are these explained in what is euphemistically titled the Omnibus’ “Joint Explanatory Statement,” but presumably “NIP” refers to National Intelligence Programs that are surreptitiously funded in the classified portions of the bill.

There are still more. Under the labels “underexecution,” “excess to requirement,” “overestimation,” and “overestimate,” more is cut. They appear to amount to $2.5 billion.

In addition to the transfer of $9.3 billion in O&M spending to the OCO account, all these cuts calculate to $7.0 billion.

Whether they are the result of detailed oversight work or of arbitrarily imposed budget targets we can only guess. They are rarely explained with any meaningful details; frequently they are not explained at all. Just where to cut is not specified; they are in effect across the board hits against all programs. They are precisely the kind of arbitrary cuts that DOD and Members of Congress complained so vociferously about in the Budget Control Act.

This behavior is also decades old. The actions are taken to help meet budget targets or to create holes into which the appropriators can pour other money for favored, specific programs. In fact, they serve both purposes.

Moreover, programs that can’t absorb the across-the-board hit (or don’t want to) will simply add back the money in future budgets. Program activities may simply be deferred to future years, which makes them not cuts but postponements. We may see the money again in the future, even if the specific re-emergence is invisible to us.

It is important to note the arbitrary cuts are mostly directed at the O&M budget. O&M funds a wide variety of activities, most prominently military training, equipment maintenance, and peacetime operations. These activities are the heart and core of military readiness-the ability to fight effectively and efficiently and to save our troops lives at the expense of the enemy’s. The appropriators across-the-board cuts in the O&M account will necessarily reduce spending for this military readiness, even if the rhetoric surrounding the bill proclaims they are not doing that. Under sequestration, DOD savaged these accounts and only partially restored them. Now Congress is hitting them up as well, even if it is saying it is not.

ACQUISITION

In the Procurement and R&D budgets there are hundreds of individual and specific programmatic cuts–not the arbitrary swipes the appropriators take at the O&M budget.

Overall, Procurement is cut $6.2 billion (6.2 percent) and R&D is cut $4.5 billion (6.7 percent) from Obama’s request.

A spokesman for the appropriators boasted to the press that they were able to avoid terminating programs and instead took relatively small reductions across many programs. This was to be good news, but it is not necessarily. Many of those actions can mean that production rates or research tempos will be cut back, or other elements of programs will simply be deferred to future years; these can also mean not just deferments of spending but cost increases-if production rates are made less efficient, for example.

In the past, such budget reductions have meant some efficiency in some programs. However, the prevailing atmosphere in DOD and Congress seems to be to endure a period of “austerity” (in truth, it is not) pending future restoration of higher spending levels. That is not a mentality that fosters efficiency. If we were confident that current DOD management knew how to get more out of less, or even wanted to do, we could be more optimistic.

EARMARKS

The Senate Appropriations Committee did not report any earmarks in its original version of the bill, and the House Appropriations Committee explicitly reported “Neither the bill nor the report contains any congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits as defined in Clause 9 of rule XXI.” Perhaps there are none that qualify under the Senate’s and House’s carefully circumscribed definition of earmarks, but there are plenty in the Omnibus. In fact, the JES is quite careful to point out that there are “congressional special interest items” in the bill, and they are to be treated with special care should DOD attempt to alter them. The tables for the R&D accounts show scores of them, and the Defense Health Program specifically lists 26 of them. Moreover, various procurement adds, such as for F-18s and Virginia class submarines, have all the hallmarks of earmarks, and yet they escape identity as such. Perhaps the chairmen of the two Defense Subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), should be asked what circumvention of the so-called earmark ban is being used to permit these “congressional special interest items.”

THE FULL TALLY

In the so-called “war-related,” OCO account of the 2014 Omnibus, there is a DOD program spending increase of $10.8 billion above what President Obama requested.

In the “base” portion of DOD spending, up to $7 billion is un- or poorly justified, arbitrary across-the-board cuts, most of them directed against O&M spending, which can only have a negative impact on military readiness.

There are also $10.7 billion in mostly specific programmatic cuts in Procurement and R&D portions of the bill, but it is possible that their primary effect will be to simply defer, if not increase, future costs.

Overall, the DOD section of the Omnibus should not be seen as an effort by Congress to return defense spending to lower, let alone pre-war, levels. Instead, it can be seen as a rear guard action by high defense spending advocates in Congress to keep the Pentagon budget as high as possible. The bill attempts to build a bridge to a future time when higher defense budgets are politically feasible. In the meantime, the congressional appropriators will use gimmicks and dodges to keep spending higher while appearing to be lower.

Will the U.S. make needed changes to national strategy?

A new Quadrennial Defense Review and a new National Security Strategy are expected early this year. These iterations of routine official documents arrive in the context of a slow wind down of the post-9/11 wars, the problematic strategic legacies of these military interventions and a sluggish economic recovery from the Great Recession. Together these conditions obligate the United States to consider very substantial adjustments to strategy and force posture.

Last July “senior defense officials” gave a briefing on the Strategic Choices and Management Review which Secretary of Defense Hagel had initiated earlier in the year. One official fielded this question: “So have you guys looked at the active-reserve component force mix?”

Response: “… the short answer really is that we’re going to continue to look at the proper balance between the active and reserve, even under reduced fiscal levels, because it’s a way we have to get to a balanced budget.”

Recently Inside the Pentagon reported that “The Quadrennial Defense Review is expected to be largely silent on the topic of senior-level guidance for balancing active and reserve forces, which means the operational model that grew during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would remain untouched, according to defense observers and a former senior official.”

While strategically the Obama administration appears committed to avoiding long military occupations and counter-insurgencies, the Pentagon isn’t going to change its active/reserve force composition that has been atuned to support these sort of interventions. The Pentagon will forego one of the best ways available for achieving a more economical military posture: relying on a strong strategic reserve for infrequent medium and large scale wars while sizing the active force to meet a variety of smaller scale contingencies and for sustaining skilled cadre available to lead and train reserves in a rapid scaling up of the total force in the event of more demanding contingencies.

Today the risk of a large-scale war is very low and a force posture with a strong strategic reserve will be more cost effective than maintaining a comparatively large active duty force. Unfortunately, the Pentagon is still addicted to preparation for constant global military activism. The ongoing financial burden on the nation of this posture is a poor strategic choice.

Retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor has presented a reform proposal which could complement a more robust strategic reserve by providing more combat power in a smaller active duty force structure. Macgregor argues for his force reform which “…preserves depth in the force and provides more ready, deployable combat power at lower cost… designed to cope with the unexpected, ‘Strategic Surprise’; a ‘Korean-like Emergency’ in 1950 or a ‘Sarajevo-like’ event in 1914, not counterinsurgency and nation building.”

In October the Army War College published a book of selected presentations from a November 2011 symposium at the National Defense University called “Forging an American Grand Strategy: Securing a Path Through a Complex Future”. The symposium’s chair and the editor of this anthology Sheila Ronis, writes, “The National Security Strategy is the closest published document that represents a comprehensive discussion of where the country is going and what it wants to accomplish… it is neither sufficiently long term nor a true strategy that links resources with objectives over time. It represents, at best, a list of aspirational goals by an administration.” An updated National Security Strategy has been promised by the White House in 2014.

Former Ambassador to NATO David Abshire argues that, while the President has constitutional authority over military strategy, when it comes to the nation’s grand strategy (which includes all the goals of national effort) the President’s power is limited to being “Persuader in Chief.” In that regard it is notable that President Obama has not been particularly inclined to take up the challenge of persuading his nation of national priorities and the requisite investments needed to obtain them. Abshire’s observation is all the more significant when he raises “the threat” of America’s decline as a global power. He says, “America’s decline… will be the result of diminishing economic strength and competitiveness, not global politics.” Abshire is not the first to make this point. Yet, it remains notable that our national government’s default investment program remains military power, not economic strength.

Former Bush National Security Council member Peter Feaver says a “velvet covered iron fist” is the first pillar of a ‘discernible’ U.S. grand strategy. He writes, “The ‘iron fist’ built a military stronger than what was needed for near-term threats to dissuade a would-be hostile rival from achieving peer status. ‘Velvet’ accommodated major powers on issues, giving them a larger stake in the international distribution of goodies than their military strength would command to dissuade a near-peer from starting a hostile rivalry.”

Putting aside for now reasonable doubt as to whether a ‘stronger than needed’ military dissuades arms racing and hostility, this grand strategy formulation begs the question of what is the ‘velvet glove’ accommodation of China’s Pacific interests that will complement the ‘iron fist’ of the announced military ‘pivot to Asia.’ While Washington politicians are loathe to talk of accommodation of foreign powers, we very much need thoughtful discussion of what are the preferred accommodations to Chinese interests in the region. One such contribution is made by Amitai Etzioni in the Survival article cited below.

A short article appearing this past June in The Diplomat is notable for summing up (rhetorically at least) recent Navy/Marine Corps operational strategic thinking regarding their role in the Pacific. It speaks of new ‘revolutionary’ assets that will “dramatically enhance the power of the distributed force” — “a 21st century attack and defense enterprise.” “Inherent in such an enterprise is scalability and reach-back. By deploying the C5ISR honeycomb, the shooters in the enterprise can reach back to each other to enable the entire grid of operation, for either defense or offense.” Readers will have to decide if this extravagant language usefully describes new strategic elements or is, perhaps, reflective of baroque conceptual mannerisms favored by 21st Century Pentagon culture.

 

 

Sources: News and Commentary

 

The Diplomat: America’s Pacific Force Structure Takes ShapeRobbin F. Laird
“The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously.” (06/28/13)

Trouthout: Making Trouble – and Alternatives – in Asia - Joseph Gerson
“The US must pivot diplomatically, not militarily. Campaigning to reinforce US hegemony in Asia and the Pacific will be no more successful than it has been in the Middle East…” (12/6/13)

New York Times At War blog: A Plan for a More Powerful Military That Costs LessDaniel Davis
“Under the auspices of the Mitchell Institute, a nonprofit policy group founded by the Air Force Association, representatives of the Army, Air Force, and Navy presented a reorganization plan called the Macgregor Transformation Model. The plan is named after its architect, Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who is the author of several books on reorganizing the military and also a decorated combat veteran. Mr. Macgregor says his plan can produce an increase in combat capability, even with smaller budgets.” (12/10/13)

Defense News: Next US Strategy Carries Heavy ExpectationsPaul McLeary and John T. Bennett
“The United States will have to adjust its military ambitions to reflect the cuts the Pentagon will have to make, said Frank Hoffman, a former Pentagon official and now senior research fellow at the National Defense University. There is little doubt that the American military will remain the most powerful military force in the world, he said. ‘You’re coming from a position of very dominant overmatch. Now it’s retaining overmatch and focusing on the things that are really important to you, and that’s what the [Asia-Pacific] rebalance is all about, maintaining overmatch.’” (12/11/13)

Breaking Defense: Budget Deal: Does the Pentagon Really Need an Extra $20 Billion?Bill Hartung
“Throwing an extra $20 billion at the Pentagon now may just postpone a necessary rethinking of how we structure our armed forces and what we expect of them in a world where traditional approaches no longer work.” (12/12/13)

Foreign Policy: The Little Deal is a Big DealGordon Adams
“…the Pentagon loves this deal… Sequester is kicked away for two years. Congress, being devoted once again to the short-term, is now likely to be kicking this budgetary device off into the future forever. Nobody knows what will happen two years from now, but you can bet that sequester is deader than a doornail.” (12/13/13)

Inside the Pentagon: No New Impulses Expected From QDR to Sort Out Active-Reserve Balance (subscription) (12/19/2013)

USA Today: Army and National Guard cross swords over troop cutsTom Vanden Brook
“Guard leaders maintain that the Army could be cut to as few as 420,000 soldiers if the Guard is allowed to expand.” (12/24/2013)

Los Angeles Times: Americans favor not isolationism but restraint – Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble
“Restraint aims to preserve U.S. power rather than expend it through occupation of failing states such as Afghanistan and the perpetual defense of healthy allies.” (12/27/2013)

 

 

Sources: Reports, Journal Articles, and Books

 

Oxford University Press: Strategy: A HistoryLawrence Freedman (September 2013)

Army War College: Forging an American Grand Strategy: Securing a Path Through a Complex Future. Selected Presentations from a Symposium at the National Defense University — Sheila R. Ronis, editor. (10/22/13)

Foreign Affairs: Defense on a Diet: How Budget Crises Have Improved U.S. StrategyMelvyn P. Leffler
“Defense spending will not be slashed but simply decline a bit — or possibly just grow at a slower rate.
This shift should not become a cause for despair but rather be treated as a spur to efficiency, creativity, discipline, and, above all, prudence. Past bouts of austerity have led U.S. officials to recognize that the ultimate source of national security is domestic economic vitality within an open world order — not U.S. military strength or its wanton use.” (Nov/Dec 2013)

Mitchell Institute: Macgregor Transformation Model (briefing slides) – Douglas Macgregor (11/19/13)

Stimson Center: The Softened Slope for DefenseRussell Rumbaugh (12/12/13)

Congressional Budget Office: Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2014 to 2023.
Nuclear forces will cost $570 billion over the next ten years. (12/19/2013)

The National Interest: America UnhingedJohn J. Mearsheimer
“Probably the most serious cost of Washington’s interventionist policies is the growth of a national-security state that threatens to undermine the liberal-democratic values that lie at the heart of the American political system.” (01/02/14)

Donald C. F. Daniel on Strategic Adjustment and the Benefits of Sequester

August 2013

The adverse consequences of hangings and budgetary cutbacks preoccupy those who face them. There may be no silver lining for those about to die, but there can be for those who must live with less. Cutbacks can force evaluation of priorities and the slimming of organizations whose bloat clouds institutional concentration and hampers agility. The DoD is one such organization: it has too many cooks concocting too many broths that either should be the responsibility of other elements of the US government or of no elements at all. Thus, the sequester can be a blessing.

The DoD is like most organizations; if leaders do not have to make hard choices, they will avoid doing so. Even the hard-nosed Donald Rumsfeld, a man with his own settled views, signed off on Quadrennial Defense Reviews that were criticized for their failure to provide the guidance necessary to choose between this or that entity, program, or provider of services. But such guidance would probably have been superfluous; budgets after all were rising dramatically and (over)matching the increases in demands levied on the DoD. The people asking the DoD to do more were understandably not interested in giving it less to do it with.

Secretary Gates struck the right tone when he did three things. One was to “re-balance” priorities to concentrate on the ongoing wars at the expense of preparing for wars against a future regional hegemon. A second was to cancel hugely expensive programs that were over budget and overdue. A third was to argue for a “whole of government” approach when evaluating who should do what to secure US national interests. He believed that the DoD had taken on or been assigned too many functions which were better suited to State Department, the Agency for International Development, and other civilian agencies. He even did something that many saw as an unnatural act for a department head: recommend to Congress that it re-program DoD moneys to the State Department so that State could better carry out the nation-building that the DoD had been doing.

Gates’ third initiative was the most important. How much of a blessing the sequester will be depends on how well our nation’s leaders (and not just the DoD’s) undertake to prioritize what they want for this country and to specify which department or agency is best fitted to carry it out. Those discussions have remained muted or in the background for too long, and that reality lessens the ultimate utility of the continuous stream of DoD budgetary studies, proposals, and commentaries coming out of the DoD, the Congress, think tanks, talking heads, and pundits. When national security experts (including former JCS Chairman Mullin) tell us that our most important national security priority is to get our economic house in order and that our greatest security threat is our debt, we should acknowledge that the defense budget is more tail than dog.

Too many Americans are not used to thinking that way. The Cold War conditioned many of today’s older Americans in particular (many of whom hold the reins of power) to overvalue the military instrument and to readily accept debt to pay for it—in other words to prioritize military needs over economic considerations. (Indeed, Vice President Cheney went so far as to argue that the Reagan years proved that debt did not matter.) Containment was the overarching national strategy that provided the framework for deciding on the priority to be allocated to the politico-diplomatic, economic, military, public outreach, aid, covert action and other ways to defend and advance US interest. But even then how to choose among these choices was not obvious. It hardly ever is. The original author of containment, George Kennan, was unhappy with the overemphasis (in his mind) on the military dimension of containment as advocated by Paul Nitze, Kennan’s successor as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. After the onset of the Korean War, Nitze’s conception largely dominated thinking through the end of the Cold War even when some Presidents—Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon (with heavy input from Henry Kissinger), and Jimmy Carter (up to the Afghan invasion)—sought to push back.

It was not until the Bush (43) Doctrine of preventive war (supplemented with democracy promotion) that the US had a grand strategy comparable to containment. Depending on one’s point of view, the Doctrine provided the ex ante rationale or the ex post rationalization for the strategically-disastrous Iraq War, but there was no confusion as to the centrality of the military instrument and the need to raise the DoD’s budget accordingly.

We are in a new era, and the sequester is nicely setting the scene to re-evaluate what we are about and how we should go about it. From a top-down perspective, we need for our national leaders to explicitly call for a national discussion. At the top of the agenda is the question: What are my country’s requirements? Reminiscent of Walter Russell Mead’s framework, should we give priority to a Jeffersonian emphasis on internal development and well-being? A Hamiltonian priority on international economic engagement? A Wilsonian priority on instilling American values abroad? A Jacksonian priority on the autarchic preservation of American honor and the achievement of military victory? What is the priority among them? How will we meet them? What ways—economic, politico-diplomatic, military, covert, etc—make the best sense and what are the priorities among them? Each way implies the generation and maintenance of resources and prioritizing among them. Generating resources in turn implies generating the capital to pay for them. In the best of all possible worlds, the capital would be there to allow the process to be top down only from requirements to resources, but that circumstance is rare and there must always be a bottom-up perspective: how much can I afford and how much must I trim my requirements? How much must I scale back on the ways on which I will rely? Which will be favored and within them which resources will I buy and to what extent? What bets will I place when making those choices? Where can I skimp in the purchase of resources in the hope that I will not regret it later? Alternatively how many contingencies—ranging from threats to domestic economic wellbeing to threats to our external influence—am I committing myself to respond to in the hope that I will never have to respond to too many at the same time? Indeed, how much is my commitment stance in any area more bluff than real, more hope than readiness?

The sequester provides an opportunity we should not forego.

Donald C. F. Daniel teaches security studies at Georgetown University. Previously he was Special Assistant to the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and prior to that he held the Milton E. Miles Chair of International Relations at the US Naval War College, Newport, RI, where he also chaired the Strategic Research Department in the College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies.

Larry Wilkerson on Strategic Adjustment

July 2013

I was there (special asst to CJCS Powell) when we implemented the reductions to establish the Base Force and, further, when Les Aspin and Bill Clinton implemented even further cuts (resulting in the need, later, to use contractors massively in order to fight two wars simultaneously and thus avoid end strength limitations imposed by the very Congress that approved those cuts and authorized those two wars–or, actually, three wars if we count the backdrop war, the so-called GWOT–and to enrich men like Richard Cheney). Those were interesting times and very insightful as to what composes such situations in terms of the White House, the bureaucracy–civilian and military–and the national security decision-making process.

Today, my approach is that of the IPS/CAP report for 2013. The first step is to acknowledge that we spend $1.2T or more now annually on the national security account. That is State (150 account), VA, DOD, DOE (nuclear weapons), 17 intelligence bodies, and Homeland Security Dept. While GDP–particularly our anemic GDP–is an atrocious measure of almost anything and certainly for national security spending, such a holistic approach demonstrates a 7-8% of GDP expenditure rather than the 3-5% so often cited. That’s a hell of a lot of money by any measure.

Once this holistic approach to national security is the rule–and it has to be if one is going to make sense of what the nation is doing–then the first requirement is to balance appropriately the overall accounts in accordance with the nation’s strategic approach to the world. Since the best and only sensible strategic approach is to lead with soft rather than hard power, one realizes immediately how out of balance is the national security budget. This is true whether one is a balance of power theorist or otherwise; unless of course one’s objective is to destroy the empire through bankruptcy.

When even a rough re-balancing is accomplished within the accounts listed above, it becomes immediately clear that we can reduce the national security budget by somewhere between three-quarters of a trillion and a trillion dollars over the next decade, or done wisely year by year, between $60-100B per year, starting with FY 2014.

The essential details of these reductions should be accomplished in accordance with the nature of the threats we envision and the resultant capabilities we believe required to meet those threats. The White House, not DOD, should lead these efforts. DOD, as the major user of funds, should have a strong voice, but that voice should be conditioned by the overall strategy devised in the White House.

Will anything remotely resembling this happen? Probably not. We are led by amateurs, in all branches of government. I see not a strategic–or even an adult and wise–mind among them.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (US Army, ret.) had a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, was special assistant to CJCS Colin Powell and was Chief of Staff during Powell’s term as Secretary of State.

Matthew Leatherman on Strategic Adjustment

July 2013

One of the Pentagon’s earliest and catchiest bumper-stickers for the automatic cuts of sequestration came from then-Secretary Leon Panetta during the first week of January 2012. If that cut arrived – as it did – the Pentagon would “probably have to throw that [strategy] out the window and start over.”

Eighteen months have come and gone with steady, uncomfortable murmuring about strategy but no definitive change. Most recent is Secretary Hagel’s July letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. This tension is a reminder that politics drive budgets, not just strategy.

Top-line budget request decisions belong to the White House and, like Congress’ defense committees, it has its own political reasons for not acknowledging sequestration. Even if the Pentagon wanted to submit plans for matching strategy to sequestration-level spending, it likely couldn’t – the political system will not accommodate that conversation right now. So strategy stays where it is, sure to adjust because of the size of the cuts but not yet adjusted.

This is less concerning than it might sound.

A rudimentary description of strategy would be that it is a statement of goals, an ordering of those goals by priority, and a cut line demarcating how far down the list the US can afford to go. When less money is available, the cut line moves up and fewer goals are financed. The priority order of these goals should not change, however. Priority #1 always gets bought and, in accounts as large as the Pentagon’s, priorities much further down the list are just as safe.

Under any resource circumstance, though, there comes a point at which the money goes no further. This can become a problem if things falling off the list are essential for national defense, if the priorities are ordered unwisely, or if the cuts aren’t made according to the list. Today’s problem isn’t the first – our national defense doesn’t hinge on the savings margins at play – and the second issue is subjective. Instead our consensus problem is that cuts aren’t being made according to the list.

Sequestration is the obvious example. Applying a formulaic cut across-the-board isn’t strategic. But it’s not the only example. Secretary Hagel’s letter forewarned that “cuts of that magnitude” place “at much greater risk the country’s ability to meet our current national security commitments,” overlooking that strategy-driven drawdowns aren’t about holding current commitments constant and accepting risk everywhere. To the contrary, they’re about raising the bar so that goals our strategy prioritizes are unaffected and goals that barely snuck into earlier budgets fall away.

The Budget Control Act and the dynamic it has fostered between Congress and the White House are about the politics of taxes and entitlement spending, not defense. Even the most astute, realistic strategy won’t change that, and various political pressures aren’t permitting adjustment of any kind. But the way ahead is much clearer than Panetta’s “throw it out the window” statement suggests, or even General Dempsey’s more recent comment about a “redo.” Once Congress and the White House make a decision on handling sequester and the federal debt ceiling, the Pentagon can give us a clearer sense of how it prioritizes goals from the 2012 strategic guidance and which of the lowest will fall away.

Matthew Leatherman is resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina and former budget analyst at the Stimson Center, Washington, DC.