Too Much Ado about the Pentagon’s New Strategy

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There’s more to the Pentagon’s new strategy than the emperor’s new clothes, but barely. It’s hardly new and not particularly strategic.

The document justifies a minor defense budget cut. The Obama administration wants to grow military spending at a pace slightly less than projected inflation for a decade. If we assume that plan stays in place—and we shouldn’t given that plans change, and we may soon have a new president—that new spending trajectory will cut non-war Pentagon spending by about eight percent compared to 2011 spending. You can come up with bigger numbers for the cut by comparing the new plans with past Pentagon spending plans or by including declining war costs. But however you slice it, these are small cuts compared to past drawdowns.

Conventional wisdom is that the cuts ought to be made strategically—that it is bad policy to let deficit concerns drive the size of the defense budget, so revised numbers require revised strategy. This new strategy document is a response to that conventional wisdom. It lets the president and Pentagon say that they have a strategic rationale for their budget.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is desperate to avoid the sequestration mechanism required by the Budget Control Act, which would roughly double the size of those cuts, and would start in January 2013. That would return military spending to where it was in 2006, more or less. Pentagon leaders complain about the suddenness and broadness of sequestration—the cuts are distributed across programs and departments, which prevents prioritization.

One function of this new strategy document is to help avoid additional cuts. By making minor changes seem like a big deal, the Pentagon is pushing back against real strategic change, which could save far bigger sums without sacrificing safety.

In an op-ed published Friday in World Politics Review, Veronique de Rugy and I argue that the size of the coming defense cuts has been grossly exaggerated. Here’s a chart from the op-ed showing military spending in current dollars with and without sequestration:

We note in the op-ed that under the Budget Control Act, the Pentagon can avoid sequestration without Congressional action by budgeting at the levels it would achieve.  That would allow it to avoid the most onerous aspects of the sequester. The Pentagon has thus far refused to do that, probably figuring that offering sensible cuts would encourage Congress to allow them. But far larger cuts are possible with real strategic change. Big cuts would encourage that sort of change.

The current U.S. defense strategy is basically primacy or global military dominance. It requires policing the seas, maintaining or strengthening current alliances, and preparing for all manner of military contingencies. Both parties’ foreign policy elites basically embrace that strategy. The documents that purport to make strategy—Quadrennial Defense Reviews and so forth—are basically sales pitches for primacy. Their standard blueprint is to mix geopolitical gobbledygook about uncertainty with vague threat inflation, assert the importance of U.S. global leadership to U.S. security without any clear theory, then list things we want our military to do, without any attempt to separate big threats from small ones and large interests from hopes, or to translate their analysis into budgetary guidance. They have no obvious effect on budgets.

This strategy offers only minor change in form and content. It embraces the strategy we have with at best a few minor tweaks. Like those past strategy documents, this effort insists that the world is getting more complex but makes no effort to demonstrate that assertion. It lists ten objectives without prioritization, although it identifies certain goals as those that drive the size of the force. It suggests a few minor shifts but gives no budgetary guidance.

The document suggests that we might shift forces from Europe and perhaps add some in Asia. No details are given. It sensibly suggests we might get by with fewer nuclear weapons but again avoids details. The most relevant bit of the document is the argument that we are less likely to fight occupational wars and thus can cut the size of the ground forces. That is a sound idea, one that should be taken further, but a reflection of current policy rather than a change. If we are really to avoid such wars, far greater cuts in the ground forces are possible.

So what we have here is a largely inconsequential defense of the status quo. It offers incremental changes to stave off the real strategic change and savings that our geopolitical fortune allows.