Archive for the ‘Guest Posts’ Category

Crisis in Eastern Europe: Origins, Putin’s Input, and Tasks Ahead

by Lutz Unterseher, 10 April 2014


During President Clinton’s first term he followed the advice of his Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to resist proposals for eastward expansion of NATO. They understood that NATO expansion would alienate Russia. However, in the summer of 1994 Clinton changed his mind. He faced discouraging predictions of his party’s prospects in the mid-term elections in November. Clinton calculated that by directing America’s NATO allies to accept Hungary, the Czech Republic and, in particular, Poland as member states he could attract additional votes from US citizens with roots in those countries.

Domestic policy concerns had dictated US foreign policy — with far-reaching consequences for NATO and Eastern Europe. As Strobe Talbott had feared, Russia’s political elite felt alienated by the American move which in turn produced anxiety in the Atlantic Alliance. In response and in order to address estrangement with Russia the West created the NATO-Russia Council. However, the Council was perceived by the Russian leadership as a cosmetic move.

Tensions rose further as the United States announced plans to station elements of their ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Officially these installations were to be a part of a defense against a strategic nuclear threat from Iran. Since this challenge does not yet, and may never, exist and given that the missile defense sites would be installed closer to Russia than to Iran, Moscow has expressed strong objection to what it perceives as a destabilizing challenge to its strategic position.

Putin’s Input

Compared with the United States or the European Union, Russia in 2014 is an economic midget — with less than one tenth of the combined GDP of the two giants. With the exception of its energy supplies for Central Europe, Russia does not have much product to offer. So if Moscow wants to maintain the status of a globally-relevant actor, the credibility of its strategic potential is of prime importance. Applauded by representatives of his power machine, Vladimir Putin has declared himself the protector of this potential and defender against the perceived threat from the West.


But he appears to have yet another agenda. To further accumulate legitimacy Putin has developed strong ties with the Orthodox Church and has adopted an ideology favoring centralist autocracy. This is conceived as an ‘enlightened’, not totalitarian autocracy, as originally outlined by Ivan Ilyin, a Russian philosopher driven into exile by Lenin. The essence of this national ideology is that Russia, through tradition and divine right, is entitled to offensively assemble all true believers (and/or Russian language speakers) under one flag — or, at least, to coerce submission of neighboring countries where these designated people live.

Ivan IllyinIvan Ilyin


Tasks Ahead

The West not only has to deal with Russia’s now provocative reaction to NATO expansionism, but is also confronted with Putin’s imperialism. It makes sense for Eastern Central European NATO members, including those with sizeable Russian-speaking minorities, to be reassured of their Alliance’s assistance in defense of sovereignty.

None the less, it is important to be clear that neither marching into endangered non-NATO countries nor violating Russia’s own territory are viable options. The results would be chaos in the region and a strengthening of Putin’s position.

Rather, a serious attempt at stabilizing this region is needed — using a holistic approach combining political, economic and – only in defensive non-provocative formations – military measures, along with encouraging and relying on indigenous parties to lead efforts for positive change.

Helping to establish a well-functioning democratic system in the Ukraine should be high on the agendas of all democratic nations — not just those in NATO or the EU. However, assistance should be cautiously offered, avoiding an impression of imposition by the West. Rather than funding political parties and trying to control them, emphasis should be on an exchange of ideas. Could not the Swiss federal constitutional model inspire those who work for an equitable and functional national modus vivendi of the different ethnic groups in Ukraine?

More direct measures of foreign influence are needed, however, when it comes to isolating and weakening dangerous right-wing elements in Kiev. Political stabilization is likely the precondition of economic recovery … and vice versa.

If there is a visible process of political stabilization, foreign investors may develop interest in Ukraine. Even more so if this country gets better access to international markets. When the EU and Ukraine negotiated an agreement of association, Moscow feared that this could divert its neighbor from trade relations with Russia. Such an exclusive economic association should be avoided.

Instead Ukraine can prosper as the economic highway between Russia and the EU. Presently, short-term measures to balance the Ukrainian government’s budget are most important. The recent IMF credit of 18 billion US dollars is helpful, but the credit is tied to significant austerity measures. As a result a decrease in the income level of Ukrainian public servants (including members of its military) is to be expected. Their salaries will fall further below those of their colleagues in Russia. This will make Putin’s attempts to win over Russian-speaking Ukrainians more attractive. It will prove counterproductive to make austerity a condition of financial investment and economic reform.

Political and economic stabilization is dependent on the integrity of Ukrainian territory. To improve this nation’s chances to protect itself, a strictly defensive military posture should be adopted: not provoking any neighbor, but making intrusions very costly for the invader. In this respect the defense of Finland, proven reliable and cost-effective, offers an inspiring example. To further foster its security Ukraine may seek – renewed – international guarantees of its status of a non-aligned, free nation – under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a scheme embracing all the relevant actors.

“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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.”


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.

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.

Unobligated Balances in the FY12 National Defense Authorization Bill

Winslow Wheeler. Guest Post, 24 May 2011.

The National Defense Authorization bill, H.R. 1540, will be debated by the House of Representatives this week. The bill is the work product of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), Chaired by Congressman Buck McKeon, R. – Calif..

The Operation and Maintenance section (Title XLIII) of the bill is one of its largest and most important. “O&M” deals with the support, logistics, maintenance, training and much else needed to enable our armed forces to function effectively. $170.8 billion was requested by President Obama; the committee increased that by $361 million to $171.1 billion. However, to get there the Committee took some detours.

Sprinkled throughout the O&M title the HASC added various earmarks (one minor example: $4.0 million for “Simulation Training Systems for the Army” [p. 430 of the Committee Report]). All of these came to a lot more than the $361 million net add to the bill. The Committee and its staff had to find offsets to help pay for these earmark goodies and other additions.

In past years, the HASC (and the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Defense Subcommittees of both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees) has listed strange sounding reductions in the O&M sections of their bills – “unobligated balances.” These should be technical alterations for money previously appropriated to the various military services for various programs; they become “unobligated” when the planned expenditure does not occur, and they presumably become available for offsets for new spending, or – if the Committee were to be more forthcoming to the taxpayer – return to the Treasury.

For example, on p. 432 of the HASC Committee Report, the tables for Army O&M show a reduction of $384.6 million labeled “Army unobligated balances estimate.” That amount happens to be 1.1% of the president’s request for total Army O&M ($34.735 billion).

The Navy section on O&M in the HASC bill shows a $435.9 million reduction for “Navy unobligated balances estimate.” For some strange reason, that amount also calculates to 1.1% of the President’s request for Navy O&M ($39.365 billion).

Stranger even, the Marine Corps O&M reduction for unobligated balances as also 1.1% ($66 million of a $5.960 billion request).

Same thing for the Air Force; the same 1.1% ($400.8 million from a $36.195 billion request).

None of these are discussed or explained in the text of the committee report; the only “explanation” we get is that they are “Army [or Navy, or Air Force, etc.] unobligated balances estimate.”

That all of these “estimates,” which should be technical in their nature, come to 1.1% reeks of gaming the system. Two relevant questions: Who did it? And Why?

First, I seriously question if these conveniently similar estimates did indeed come from the military services. That would require a rather strange (and specious) amount of coordination by them all to all come to 1.1% of their respective O&M budget requests.

Secondly, why are there no “unobligated balances” in the procurement and R&D titles, which are heavy with the kind of spending that can end up “unobligated”?

Third, why isn’t this money being returned to the Treasury, from whence it came and now belongs if indeed the money is no longer needed by the Defense Department?

There are lots of other questions, but hopefully you get my drift. The offsets the HASC took, calling them “unobligated balances,” are nothing but across the board whacks at one of the most importance accounts in the DOD budget – the one that makes for a well trained and supported military. Why is the HASC doing these across the board cuts, and why are they doing it in O&M?

There are some other “unobligated balance” issues in the bill. The defense wide part of O&M also took a $456.8 million hit from a request of $30.940 billion. This comes to 1.47%. Why does the part that supports the special forces and others take a bigger proportional hit than the other military services?

Also, the Defense Health Program takes a $225 million hit which is “explained” as a “GAO estimate,” but no GAO analysis or other explanation is offered.

The Military Personnel budget that pays military salaries takes a $693 million hit from a $142.828 billion request (.48%). I found no explanation.

Finally, section 2107 permits the Secretary of the Army to use $115 million in previously “unobligated” spending to fund a water treatment facility at Fort Irwin California. Perhaps the House representative from the Fort Irwin area can explain how all this works and how he or she got to fund some spending in the district from these ubiquitous funds.

In my judgment, the HASC, which is charged with oversight of DOD, could use a little oversight itself.

Apples to Apples Comparison of National Defense Reduction Plans

by Winslow Wheeler.
November 2010.

Topline Comparisons

Based on my experience at the Senate Budget Committee, I learned that reading different deficit reduction plans can be tricky. Some use CBO or other “baselines” as a basis for comparison, but those baselines can be a mystery to some and differ – sometimes by huge amounts – from more readily understood future budget proposals for departments, such as the Pentagon’s. Other sources of confusion can be whether the plan applies just to the Pentagon or the larger National Defense Budget Function, uses outlays rather than budget authority, and does or does not include funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes the dollars used are “constant;” sometimes they are “current.”

Sometimes the press and others simply misunderstand elements of an overall plan, such as by reporting a plan’s savings for one “illustrative” year as the entirety of the plan’s savings. Sometimes uncovering what a plan really means requires close reading of the text and footnotes; in still other cases, it requires prolonged discussion with the authors.

This information paper attempts to remove the various impediments to an apples-to-apples comparison of the major plans to reduce defense spending that have been publicly proposed to the Obama Commission of Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. It compares all the plans to the Obama/Gates Plan for National Defense Spending for the years 2011 to 2020; it addresses only “base” budgets (which exclude spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere), and it applies budget authority in “current” dollars.

Budget Authority Savings
Relative to the Obama/Gates “Base” National Defense Budget 2010-2020
Billions of Dollars, All Dollars Are “Current” Dollars


After the above table each plan is addressed briefly, pointing out its major characteristics. I have attempted to do so objectively, with as little editorial comment as possible.

Matthew Hoey responds to the Mello-Knight exchange

Matthew Hoey is the founder of the Military Space Transparency Project (MSTP) and a former senior research associate at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies (IDDS) where he specialized in forecasting developments in missile defense and military space technologies. He responded on 02 March 2010 to the Mello-Knight exchange of views on nuclear disarmament and the Obama administration.

President Obama’s hopes to begin the long march toward a nuclear free future are not limited to just words, though I understand how some may believe this to be the case. Upon closer examination, the President is taking the critical first steps in an effort to go beyond his address at Prague. The President is in the process of negotiating a new arms control treaty with the Russians, and it is highly likely that he will be pursuing even deeper cuts in the future. He has also made efforts to expand and strengthen the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Where are the results? Why have we not seen action? When will the nuclear threat begin to wane–even if it happens ever so slightly?

This is a very informative thread, and I have enjoyed reading all of the entries. What Charles [Knight] has initiated here serves as an example of how if we draw upon all of the myriad arguments before us, we are sure to paint a more nuanced picture of the road to consensus and cooperation. The same could not be truer in regard to our domestic political and international diplomatic climates as well. Parties in all corners have legitimate disputes and concerns, and until these are all fully addressed in a courageous and aggressive new fashion it is my belief that our drive towards zero will never get in gear. Here are my thoughts on how we can get moving.

One step would be for both American and Russian defense industries to gradually be converted into commercial industries – in the current global economy this would be slow to begin but would eventually reap tremendous benefits. Such a transition would even free university students from the confines of military contractors as a leading option for employment, ensuring that this generation of young people would not be bound to the archaic practices of the military industrial complex. The ripple effects on cooperative defense would be tremendous. As it is, our overall military capabilities are already unrivaled. Such reductions in military spending and subsequent reinvestment in new technology would not in fact lessen our strategic dominance, since cooperative defense would diminish the move-countermove dynamic that has long undermined disarmament efforts. Then taking into consideration cooperative defense and the promotion of one another’s security, our mutual economic potential would be enhanced further, thus strengthening our international relationship to an unprecedented level.

This would not be a cooperative security agreement limited to just sharing military and launch data; such a partnership would also extend into a shared strategic defense. In this era where the war on terror and the threat from extremism is the focal point of nations such as the US and Russia—ever posed with internally-based security threats and intrusions by radicals who would not hesitate to use a nuclear weapons in a major city—this simply makes sense.

The pursuit of missile defense to guard against incoming threats is the single greatest impediment to progress – this is the lynch pin, and under the banner of reducing national security threats it does nothing more than increase them. It is a fool’s pursuit. Should the United States pull back from its BMD aspirations in concert with the initiation of cooperative defense discussions, real progress toward reducing the threat of a missile attack against the US could begin. This would also help to motivate the US and Russia to find common ground in regard to Iran during this heady time. With the world’s two military superpowers acting as enhanced security and economic partners, it is more likely that this leadership by example would take hold and could spur the beginning of a global trend over the long run.

Spending has long been unrestrained within the nuclear complex and the national labs. This is a perennial phenomenon—the effect of unwavering pork barrel spending and lobbying by elected officials in cahoots with the defense industry to bring home jobs to their home districts. This cannot be undone without disastrous results. The US economy is addicted to the defense dollar and must be weaned from it gradually. This would come in the form of a transition away from the development of destructive technology and towards the development of beneficial technologies, for example, alternative energy solutions or emerging technologies that would enhance space exploration. Far too many working American families rely upon the defense budget and the nuclear dollar. If consensus for disarmament efforts is to extend across the aisles of Congress and the Senate, this must be understood and honored. If not, we face divisions and a squandered opportunity that may not present itself again.

Once such a transition takes place, a type of economic vacuum effect could commence where free markets, capitalism and innovation driven by new technology could lift the US and Russian economies out of the mud that is the threat of nuclear annihilation. This vacuum effect was not possible in years past, and is actually enabled by the current economic crises and the need for new industries that would contribute to economic recovery and job creation. It does not require any more courage, concessions or clarity to pursue a world without nuclear weapons through such avenues than what is needed to cling onto weapons that can and will someday kill millions.

When placed side-by-side, exchanges and the resulting debates regarding the increase in the nuclear complex budget versus the White House’s current policy positions beg for such a solution. In fact, if such a solution is initiated cautiously through careful consideration of the needs of all parties, it could ripple across the economy help to address our greatest global challenges. This could be accomplished while progressively extracting more and more American and Russian scientists from the nuclear gadgetry industry and channeling their enormous individual and collective talents into a more prosperous direction.

Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev have the courage and clarity to understand and express their willingness to discuss a world without nuclear weapons. Progress will require a steadfast commitment to courage in the face of the defense industry and the clarity to see that thousands of Russian and Americans rely on these industries and will need jobs that provide the means to support their families. Cooperative defense will lead to the beginning of a transition from massive defense spending to productive civilian investment that stands to benefit all.

Offering concessions and placing cooperative defense on the table while viewing the road ahead in a broader context should get the discussion moving in a direction that turns words into additional actions. As long as the United States refuses to give up missile defense in Eastern Europe we will remain at a standstill.

It was Dr. Randall Forsberg who opened my mind to this way of thinking. She taught me about how cooperative security could be used as a vehicle for peace. Her words that follow, written in 1992, ring today with a renewed poignancy:

The end of the Cold war represents a turning point for the role of military force in international affairs. At this unique juncture in history, the world’s main military spenders and arms producers have an unprecedented opportunity to move from confrontation to cooperation. The United States, the European nations, Japan and the republics of the former USSR can now replace their traditional security policies, based on deterrence and unilateral intervention, with cooperative policies based on minimum deterrence, non-offensive defense, nonproliferation, and multilateral peacekeeping.

There are four important reasons to make this change, and make it quickly:

First, massive resources are at stake. With a cooperative security policy, the United States could cut the annual military budget… A peace dividend on this order is exactly what we need to revitalize the economy and meet the backlog of needs in housing, health, education, environment and economic infrastructure.

Second, the cooperative approach to security is prerequisite to stopping the global proliferation of armaments and arms industries. The prospect of proliferation has become the single greatest military threat to this country and to the world…

Third, the choice by the major industrial nations either to perpetuate a US-dominated international security system or to develop a more cooperative system will have far-reaching political ramifications at home and abroad… here in America, the change would help reverse the nasty mixture of cynicism, violence, and racism that has increasingly pervaded our society since the first Reagan Administration made increases in military spending at the price of national debt and deep cuts in domestic programs.

Last but not least, a cooperative approach to security is likely to be far more effective than the traditional approach in reducing the incidence and scale of war. Despite these enormous stakes, Congress and the Administration have, until recently, refused even to consider substantial cuts in post-Cold war defense spending, much less seize the unprecedented opportunity to develop a cooperative security system. [Randall Forsberg, “Defense Cuts and Cooperative Security in the Post-Cold War World”, Boston Review, May 1992]

Should President Obama choose to accept this torch I believe that we can achieve the goals outlined in Prague within our lifetime.