The Secretary of Defense is a man on a mission. Well, really several. His first mission is to win our current wars. His second mission is to rebalance the military both in terms of how it is structured to deal with current and future conflicts and in relation to the other instruments of national power. His third mission is to reform the relationship between the U.S. and its allies both by building partnership capacity and by reforming the export control system. His final mission, apparently, is to tell the military that despite its efforts to do as they were asked, to win unwinnable wars and keep the global peace while simultaneously rebalancing their portfolio of capabilities, they are about to be the victims of a budgetary trainwreck.
Naturally, the Secretary of Defense did not call the situation a trainwreck. Nevertheless, that is what is coming for the military. In a speech on Saturday at the Eisenhower Library, the secretary defined the nature of that trainwreck. He started out by stating that although the security environment for the foreseeable future required a military of at least the size and character of the one he has shaped, fiscal and budgetary realities dictate that cuts are coming. He slides right past the larger reality of an administration that is spending too much (and on the wrong things), promising too much and taxing too much. Instead, the secretary focuses on problems within the defense budget. These include Congressional interference in acquisition plans such as the cancellation of the C-17 and alternative engine programs, rising health care costs, weapons systems that are too technologically sophisticated and, hence, expensive, exploding budgets for operations and maintenance and, finally, a bloated bureaucracy. Secretary Gates’ effort to replace private contractors with government employees is likely to increase operations and maintenance costs in the end. These factors increase the cost of the department’s must-pay bills. In the context of a flat or declining top line this problem will squeeze force structure.
The speech is somewhat puzzling since it comes only a few months after the publication of the department’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which gave only scant attention to the obvious trainwreck about to occur. I know that defense department senior officials were aware that a trainwreck was coming because I attended several meetings with them as they were preparing the QDR in which this subject was raised. When you add personnel to the department, both military and civilians, while increasing their pay and benefits what happens? Your costs go up. Although the secretary claims credit for canceling programs that saved some $300 billion in defense spending, he now says that this will not be enough to balance the books. The QDR could have addressed the problem in any of three ways: by calling for increased resources, controlling the runaway costs within the defense budget for things like medical care, or reduced missions. If anything, the QDR added to the military’s problem by expanding the range of missions it must perform.
Yes, Secretary Gates has talked about further reforms in defense acquisition and streamlining the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. He and some defense experts have advocated radical changes in our defense posture, creating whole new classes of weapons systems while junking many of those that are erroneously demeaned as being of the Cold War. But the reality is that it will take many years, perhaps decades, for such reforms to fully ripple through the force structure and headquarters and for the savings to be realized. In the mean time, costs for both personnel and equipment will grow. For the foreseeable future, the military will have to make do primarily with the systems it has today, including many which the Secretary goes out of his way to criticize at every opportunity.
The Secretary of Defense has put the U.S. military on the path to a trainwreck. Declining budgets, rising costs, an aging force and more missions to perform give the military no way out. In the current security environment marked by strategic uncertainty, the rise of new powers and terrorist groups and potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, reducing missions could result in global chaos and even war. Cutting force structure without reducing the span of missions that must be performed is a recipe for military disaster. So the U.S. military, like some overtaxed railroad, will be forced to continue serving too many stations, rushing down the tracks at ever increasing speeds while relying on aging equipment that receives insufficient maintenance until the trainwreck occurs.
Find Archived Articles: