That Was Easy: Disciplining Defense in the New Budget Era

We have definitively entered the era of budget discipline, starting with the most recent agreement on federal funding for the full 2011 fiscal year. And the defense budget is finally beginning to head towards a draw-down, ever so gently. And it is easy to do, with little or no sacrifice to our defense capabilities or our security (though the stalwart defenders of the faith would have you imagine otherwise).

The defense appropriation passed last week with the bill funding the government. It actually provided $5 billion more for defense than DOD received in FY 2010. But it also fell $19 billion short of Gates’ request, and $9 billion below the absolute minimum of $540 billion the Secretary said would be needed “to properly carry out its mission, maintain readiness, and prepare for the future.”

Instead of watching the Pentagon begin to close down this week, however, it turns out it was a trifle to find that $19 billion; Congress scarcely broke a sweat. Nearly half of it ($9 billion) came from trimming funding for procurement programs most of which the Pentagon had already stretched, cancelled, or replaced, like the Marine Corps F-35 fighter or the Army’s ground combat vehicle. A good part of the remainder involved scooping up spare cash in DOD’s revolving “working capital fund” and, yes, assuming a lower rate of inflation than previously projected (an inflation rate war DOD has had with OMB for decades, but this time it was convenient to concede to OMB).

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan issued a proposed FY 2012 budget resolution which would substantially make up the lost ground, by agreeing to the FY 2012 administration defense budget request of $553 billion, or $23 billion (or 4.3%) more in one year. But there is no relief for the Pentagon there; Ryan was just tossing the ball to the Senate Democrats so he could say they were soft on defense when they come in at a lower level.

The President took a timid step in front of this draw-down parade yesterday, when he suggested the administration would seek to remove another $400 billion from projected defense budgets over the next ten years. Of course, those budgets are currently projected to grow more than inflation through FY 2014, and with inflation in the succeeding two years, about the only part of discretionary spending projected to grow.

And, frankly, a $400 billion reduction from defense over ten years is also trivial. The Department plans to spend more than $6 trillion over those years; $400 billion is less than 7% below that projection. A good comptroller can find about $40 billion a year to save with his or her eyes closed.

And it is less than half the defense reductions the President’s own deficit commission proposed last December. And less than half the proposed defense reductions contained in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s debt commission (Rivlin-Domenici) proposal of November 2010. Odd that the White House did not back up the views of its own commission.

These cuts are easy to do. It would be nice if they were sensible, too, so the idea of a review of strategy, roles, and missions is a good one. But the President is wrong to leave it to the Pentagon. The last time they did such a review (last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review). it was a useless mish-mash of unprioritized missions which argued that the Pentagon’s job was to reduce risk as close as possible to zero for all of them. That is no recipe for budget discipline.

Better to run the review in the White House, redefine US engagement, and then carve off some of that mission excess, like being a global police officer, as Erskine Bowles suggested.

There are plenty of proposals for how to do this, and still leave in place the most globally dominant military force the world has ever seen. And the result would be welcome discipline in the Defense Department. As Adm. Mike Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs put it in January: “The budget has basically doubled in the last decade. And my experience here is that in doubling, we’ve lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.” He is right and the time is now.

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About Gordon Adams 5 Articles

Affiliation: International Institute for Strategic Studies

Gordon Adams has been a defense and foreign policy analyst and budget specialist for more than thirty years. Educated at Stanford and Columbia University (Ph.D. in political science), he founded one of Washington’s most respected defense budget think tanks – the Defense Budget Project – in 1983. In 1992 he began a five year stint as Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget. He was responsible for all defense, intelligence and foreign policy budgets as the senior White House official for national security budgeting. Since leaving the White House, he has been Deputy Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and has taught national security planning and budgeting at George Washington University and, now, at the School of International Service, American University. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, where he directs the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program.

As one of the few Washington policy wonks who speaks both defense and foreign policy budgeting, Dr. Adams is regularly called on to testify before Congress. He is also a frequent voice in the media on both subjects, appearing regularly in or writing for such publications as Politico, the New York Times, and The Hill. He also writes an occasional column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and blogs for National Journal,, Huffington Post, and His most recent book, Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home (co-authored with Cindy Williams; Routledge 2010) is a unique study of national security budgeting, covering foreign policy, defense, intelligence, and homeland security from both the executive branch and congressional perspective.

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1 Comment on That Was Easy: Disciplining Defense in the New Budget Era

  1. Spending more on defense doesn’t win wars.
    We learned that the hard way when we went into Vietnam
    And now we are learning that lesson again in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    The war that was supposed to be “mission accomplished has dragged on longer than any other war in US history.

    We spend 750 billion dollars a year just on the military alone. More than all the other nations of the world combined.

    And yet 8 years later The US is being confounded by a bunch of illiterate Afghan peasants who have no tanks, no air force, no navy, no cruise missiles, no drones, no attack helicopters, no night vision goggles…and who wear flip flops instead of combat boots. Yet they attack highly armed and trained American troops at will, destroying military convoys, blowing up US soldiers, and forcing us to send in even more troops to stem the bleeding.

    We have nothing to show for our 750 billion dollar investment but red ink.

    If a bunch of bearded Muslim peasants are able to fight the most powerful army in the world to a standstill and do it on a shoestring budget, perhaps we should hire some of them to manage the Pentagon.

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