October 10, 2013

Placebo: The 2014 Defense Budget and DOD’s Credibility Challenges

The president’s Fiscal Year 2014 defense budget request is a placebo, a placeholder with no effect. It exceeds the budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act’s automatic spending reductions, which went into effect in early March, so its specific budget allocations almost certainly will have to change. What will not change, however, is that the overall level of defense spending will be lower in 2014 and beyond than in years past. To date, policymakers have emphasized the operational consequences of budget cuts: the training hours lost and weapons upgrades deferred. Yet, the strategic consequences for U.S. credibility are potentially much more serious.

The U.S. defense establishment today faces severe credibility challenges. Internationally, American defense budget cuts have shaken confidence in the U.S. military’s ability to achieve the nation’s security goals. The dysfunctional manner in which the U.S. government imposed the cuts has sapped faith in the ability of the American political system to provide steady, long-term support for U.S. security objectives. Domestically, the Department of Defense (DOD) has failed to accomplish its top political goal, averting sequestration, and has struggled to mobilize political support for its preferred strategy, the Defense Strategic Guidance. It is now being led by a defense secretary who suffered through a contentious nomination process and was confirmed by the smallest vote margin in the history of the job.

The Pentagon should address its credibility challenges by adopting new ways of operating that shrink the gap between ends and means. Political leaders are loath to downgrade strategic ends and, absent a new war, budgetary means will not grow significantly for several years. That leaves ways as the main dial for defense policymakers to adjust. Two important opportunities include reforming business practices related to base support and facilities maintenance, depots and commercial and retail activities; and increasing jointness among the services by delineating clearer roles and missions in cyberspace.

Credibility Challenges

The United States is at risk of over-promising and under-delivering on its global security ambitions. The Obama administration has sometimes downplayed the risks of defense cuts to international audiences in order to comfort allies. (Confusingly, it has accentuated risks domestically to convince Congress to undo sequestration). The administration has argued that while budget cuts have forced DOD to reshape the defense strategy through the Defense Strategic Guidance, better prioritization and new investments will allow the U.S. military to continue to pursue the same long-standing strategic goal of maintaining global military engagement.

U.S. allies will not necessarily be reassured by this argument. American budget cuts have caused both allies and potential adversaries to wonder whether the U.S. military can meet its stated goals. Allies’ uncertainty about U.S. credibility in an era of declining defense spending will persist – even though the U.S. military is sure to remain supremely capable – because all states are quite sensitive to relative changes in the status quo. Perceptions of changes in American power may well matter more than the presence and continued effectiveness of U.S. forces. In some international quarters, budget cuts reinforce perceptions of American decline even if the U.S. military remains visibly present and effective at achieving its stated goals. More effective messaging by the U.S. government will not erase these perceptions that U.S. power is fading.

Bipartisan support for the U.S. defense strategy and the spending associated with it has been a strategic asset and source of credibility in decades past, but it is not clear that that will continue to be the case. Today, there is a serious risk that the United States will behave more erratically – and less credibly – on the world stage because of political infighting at home. Partisanship always has influenced U.S. defense policy, hagiographic Cold War nostalgia notwithstanding. Yet it is now more extreme by several objective measures.

The aimless way in which the U.S. government stumbled into sequestration is just the latest case in point. American political leaders have sought to maintain the goals of the current U.S. defense strategy while skimping on the budget to support it. The Obama administration kept the strategy because embracing a less ambitious version would incur political costs by suggesting that the United States is willing to retreat from global leadership. Yet Congress cut the budget because its desire to reduce American indebtedness trumped all other priorities. The result has been to weaken U.S. credibility.

New Ways

Credibility challenges threaten to harm U.S. national security by weakening deterrence and/or encouraging aggression. If allies and potential adversaries view U.S. security commitments as untenable and Congress does not support the military’s plans, the United States will be left speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. Overambitious ends attached to weakly supported means are a recipe for alliance erosion and deterrence failure. Yet, the desire to restore U.S. credibility could cause American leaders to undertake risky military adventures in order to showcase U.S. strength. The irrational pursuit of credibility has damned U.S. defense policy in the past, most notably during Vietnam, and American policymakers must guard against it.

The Pentagon’s tactics during the debate over sequestration have not forged political consensus about how much to spend on the military or what to spend it on. In fact, DOD’s intense rhetoric about the “catastrophic” consequences of sequestration appeared excessive to many members of Congress (and the public) and harmed the Pentagon’s credibility. The question now is how to undo the damage.

To help restore its credibility both internationally and domestically, the U.S. military should adopt new ways of operating to reduce the gap between ends and means. The Pentagon has made progress in this area through its efficiencies initiatives, but it must do more. Though it has been suggested frequently, reforming business practices and increasing jointness among the services are two promising “ways” that could save DOD billions of dollars. Failing to embrace such policies carries serious risks because the costs of fielding U.S. military forces continue to grow. If the Pentagon continues business as usual as defense budgets are cut, U.S. combat capabilities will be harmed far beyond the impact of the cuts alone.

DOD should reform its business practices related to base support and facilities maintenance, depots, and commercial and retail activities, which could save over $100 billion over the next 10 years. Base support (e.g. cutting grass) and facilities maintenance costs and outcomes still vary among the services, and adopting best practices across DOD will save money and improve quality. Similarly, numerous third-party studies have recommended how to reform depot and commercial/retail activities. New policies could include adopting a two-part depot pricing structure, consolidating commissaries and exchanges (paired with a tax-free grocery allowance to offset higher prices), and reducing commercial activities positions held by military personnel.

One way to increase jointness is for the Pentagon to delineate clearer roles and missions in cyberspace. The military services are building unnecessarily redundant capabilities in their attempts to prepare for operations in the important (and relatively well-funded) cyber domain. A 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that “the services are moving forward using disparate, service-specific approaches to operationalizing cyberspace without knowing exactly what mission requirements they will be required to meet for U.S. Cyber Command.” Another GAO study detailed a 2008 incident in which a piece of malicious software infected DOD systems but the department’s response was hampered by “uncoordinated, conflicting, and unsynchronized guidance.” The services do not all need to develop their own comprehensive organizations and capabilities to perform cyber operations. Clarifying roles and missions in cyberspace not only will save money by limiting unnecessary overlap, but also will strengthen the U.S. military’s ability to respond effectively to a major cyber attack.

Tightening the alignment of ends, ways and means will enhance U.S. credibility internationally by fielding a military force better able to do precisely what it says it will do. Domestically, it will give Congress greater confidence that DOD is doing everything possible to mitigate the harmful effects of budget cuts, thereby suggesting that any residual harmful effects are truly unavoidable unless Congress lessens the cuts. Closing the ends-means gap is neither an original nor an exhilarating recommendation, but sound strategies rarely are.

Travis Sharp is a non-resident fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a graduate student at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

  1. Jeremy W. Peters, “Hagel Approved for Defense in Sharply Split Senate Vote,” The New York Times, February 26, 2013.
  2. This section draws on Travis Sharp, “Over-promising and under-delivering? Ambitions and risks in US defence strategy,” International Affairs 88 no. 5 (September 2012), 975-991.
  3. Marcus Weisgerber, “In Europe, Mixed Feelings About U.S. Troop Cuts,” Defense News, January 16, 2012; “US plans for troop reduction to affect Korean security: experts,” The Korea Times, January 6, 2012; “The sequestration burden,” The Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2013; and author’s meetings with foreign officials, 2011 and 2012.
  4. Pew Research Center, “Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years,” June 4, 2012, http://www.peoplepress.org/2012/06/04/partisan-polarization-surges-in-bu....
  5. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, “Remarks by Secretary Panetta at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C.” (Washington, October 11, 2011), http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4903.
  6. For detailed recommendations, see David W. Barno, Nora Bensahel, Matthew Irvine and Travis Sharp, “Sustainable Pre-eminence: Reforming the U.S. Military at a Time of Strategic Change” (Center for a New American Security, May 2012).
  7. This paragraph draws on David W. Barno, Nora Bensahel and Travis Sharp, “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity” (Center for a New American Security, October 2011), 41, 44.
  8. Government Accountability Office, Defense Department Cyber Efforts: More Detailed Guidance Needed to Ensure Military Services Develop Appropriate Cyberspace Capabilities(May 2011), 18.
  9. Government Accountability Office, Defense Department Cyber Efforts: DOD Faces Challenges In Its Cyber Activities (July 2011), 36.
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