The Pentagon has spent much of the past decade figuring out how to spend more each year, rather than less. Military and civilian leaders, as former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen once said, have “lost their ability to prioritize.”
To help retrain a free-spending Pentagon for an age of frugality, a Washington think tank brought together a group of about 70 defense insiders, who were divided into seven teams, and asked them to rebuild the nation's future military force with 10 percent less money.
The results of the exercise are revealing, in that they show how decisions could be made if the Pentagon were freed from the politics of defense spending and strategists were allowed to allocate resources purely based on projected national security threats.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments hosted the budget war game over the summer, and published the results Nov. 27 in a report titled, “Strategic Choices: Navigating Austerity,” co-authored by analysts Todd Harrison and Mark Gunzinger.
The names of the participants were not disclosed. They included a mix of congressional staff members from both parties, Defense Department civilians and former military officers from all services; defense industry executives and analysts from various think tanks. They were organized into teams and asked to adapt U.S. military strategy, force structure and weapons inventory over a 10-year period, with a budget reduced by 10 percent from current levels.
The idea was not to spread the cuts across the board but to target them in a strategic manner, Harrison said Nov. 27 at a CSBA news conference.
CSBA developed a software tool that allowed players to access a database of 600 budget items that they could cut or move around — weapon systems, force structure elements, bases, personnel, readiness and high-tech programs such as space systems and cybersecurity. No cuts in military or civilian pay and benefits were allowed.
Players were asked to construct a force that would be prepared to fight in “contested environments,” which is Pentagon-speak for combat zones where the enemy would deploy precision-guided weapons, air defenses and other advanced systems that would make it difficult for U.S. forces to maneuver.
The CSBA exercise sought to demonstrate that, in the face of declining budgets, the Pentagon will need to set priorities and reallocate resources, rather than conduct its usual budget drills where the entire military takes a haircut.
Within the seven groups, two chose to dramatically reduce the size of ground forces — the Army would go down from 490,000 to 300,000 troops and the Marine Corps would decline from 186,000 to about 150,000. The savings would be reinvested in high-tech weaponry. Another group recommended the termination of the $400 billion Joint Strike Fighter program and suggested more money be allocated to long-range bombers. Others proposed a shift in Navy funding from surface ships to submarines.
The groups that made the boldest choices were honoring the spirit of the game, which was to make budget cuts informed by strategy, said Gunzinger. “Failure to make choices is effectively a form of self-sequestration,” he said, referring to the mandatory across-the-board cuts that could begin as early as Jan. 2 unless Congress passes a law to avert them.
The big winners of the CSBA budget game were characterized as “crown jewels” that are likely to get more, not less, funding. They included special operations forces, offensive and defensive cyberwarfare systems, manned and unmanned long-range bombers and surveillance aircraft, and survivable undersea warfare systems.
Harrison and Gunzinger acknowledged that the exercise was conducted against some unrealistic assumptions, such as the idea that Pentagon spending can be divorced from politics. Strategy-based budgeting would be easy if Congress didn’t exist.
But Harrison insisted that the Pentagon should start setting priorities sooner, rather than later, because cuts are looming, regardless of what happens with the sequestration mandate.
From 1999 to 2011, annual U.S. defense spending increased from $360 billion to $537 billion in constant dollars, not including an additional $1.3 trillion spent on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration and Congress have already agreed to halt further increases over the next decade by a total of nearly $487 billion. In January 2013, sequestration could trigger another $472 billion in total reductions over the same period.
“This means that serious belt-tightening is coming — a process that will be made even more difficult thanks to increasing manpower costs and the decline of the country’s European allies,” wrote CSBA President Andrew Krepinevich, in a recent study.
“Strategy is about setting priorities, and not everything can be a top priority,” he said. “U.S. forces are simply too expensive to be committed in large numbers to the defense of peripheral interests.”
Where possible, Krepinevich suggested, the United States should “use its resources in ways that impose disproportionate costs on its rivals” such as spy planes, stealth aircraft and advanced cyberweapons.
“One key resource currently being squandered by the Pentagon is time,” he said. “For much of the last 20 years, a relatively stable international order and generous budgets have enabled the United States to avoid making difficult choices about defense and strategy. Decisions were often dominated by the domestic politics of defense policy, parochial bureaucratic interests, and sheer inertia rather than rigorous planning. … Critical choices need to be made regarding the size and structure of the U.S. armed forces, their doctrine and equipment, and what are the most promising areas of future investment.”