Hagel's Priorities

I agree with Dov that the White House is behaving utterly irresponsibly with regard to defense spending and policy -- and I even favor further spending cuts, which Dov does not. President Obama has for his entire term in office treated DOD like an ATM machine, cutting its budget to free up money for his priorities while excoriating Congress for the consequences of those cuts. President Obama clearly doesn't share the Pentagon's concern about further cuts, blithely saying the $490 billion already cut can be matched. The White House chose to exclude personnel costs from budget cuts, ratcheting up pressure on other parts of the budget. The president was shameless enough to go to Camp Pendleton during the government shutdown, stand in front of the assembled Marines and say "what makes me frustrated is that sometimes the very folks who say they stand with our military, the same folks are standing in the way of the sequester. It's important to look at deeds, and not just words."

But Hagel is also to blame for the mismanagement evident at DOD. The Defense Department turned in a FY 2014 budget $54 billion in excess of the Budget Control Act ceiling, exacerbating the cuts that would need to be made when sequestration came into effect. Services were permitted to spend in excess of their annual burn rate in the months before sequestration went into effect, in order to accentuate the degree of cuts and therefore the damage they could claim was the result of sequestration. According to former Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter, the Pentagon only began "prudent planning" for sequestration two weeks before it came into effect. Services that had programmed their money carefully enough that they didn't need to furlough civilian employees (the Navy) were required out of solidarity to transfer money to the other services and participate in furloughs.

Hagel's Strategic Choices Management Review was supposed to identify where trade-offs would need to be made. Beyond the simplistic "quantity or quality" metric Hagel summarized in his out-brief to the press, it produced very little. Army end strength wasn't even raised as an issue. The leader of the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review team said of the SCMR "there was no strategy in it, there were no choices in it."

Dov is exactly right that the cutting-edge enablers of our military proficiency (ISR, precision strike) and shielding our vulnerabilities (space, cyber) are where to prioritize spending, but very little in Hagel's actual choices as secretary suggests he is doing so. The criticism holds across all six of Hagel's priorities: reduce "the world's biggest back office" by 20 percent; make contingency scenarios drive force structure; tier readiness; protect emerging capabilities; "preserve balance" between compensation, training, and equipment; and reform personnel compensation.

Compensation reform is the most egregious illustration: it needs doing, but DOD isn't doing it. It's great that he set up a commission to review compensation...except that the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation concluded its work less than a year ago. Budget experts like the estimable Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments have provided a welter of suggestions for curbing the runaway cost of personnel compensation. The debate is not lacking ideas or alternatives, it is lacking the leadership heft -- both from DOD's civilian and military leaders -- to shame Congress into accepting that not every "vote to support our men and women in uniform" is actually good for the Department of Defense in these austere times. Especially when denying them the training and equipment that will make them effective and reduce the risk of casualties is the alternative.

I very much hope Secretary Hagel will actually take up some of these ideas, and those that his own commission will put forward, but giving speeches and setting up commissions are not the same as taking on the Military Officers Association of America and other lobbying groups that will make votes uncomfortable for members of Congress to cast. The service chiefs will have to play an active part in changing the political dynamic from one that rewards compensation votes to one that educates the Congress and public to understand greater compensation will actually be harmful because training and equipment will get short shrift.

That DOD is in such a parlous state is largely its own fault, the result of weak leadership and bad management. Even former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been critical, saying "these decisions have been by the seat of the pants, what's essential and what's not essential. I think not enough thought was put into how exactly this would be implemented." Hagel needs to up his game, and so does the military leadership.

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Shadow Government

The Coming Rivalry of Grumpy Old Men in East Asia

Tokyo and Beijing are certainly rivals, but given demographic trends, the rivalry will be among grumpy old men. 

Things are heating up in the East China Sea, as China continues to pressure Japan to abandon its claim that its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyus by China) is nonnegotiable.

And after a year of dangerous intrusions and escalations, such as a Chinese frigate locking its radar on a Japanese vessel around the disputed islands, recently Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera accused China of sending its coast guard vessels into the Senkaku waters more than once a week: "I believe the intrusions by China in the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands fall in the 'gray zone' [between] peacetime and an emergency situation."

The Sino-Japanese dispute is coming perilously close to conflict, as China finds in Shinzo Abe's government a wall of resistance to its recent pattern of aggression in its near seas. Abe has ambitious plans for reviving both the Japanese economy and its national security institutions to deal with dual threats from China and North Korea.

But there is some irony in Onodera's choice of words, "gray zone," to describe the state of affairs in the East China Sea: This great-power competition is unique in that the protagonists are getting old fast.

Never before have we seen a strategic rivalry in which the opposing sides are getting so old. While both countries are using the tools of traditional statecraft -- rising military budgets, high-stakes diplomacy, economic leverage -- to gain strategic advantage, they are rapidly losing the actual people to sustain this great game.

According to Chinese statistics, the 15-64 age-group cohort, the most productive age group, shrank by 3.45 million last year. Meanwhile, the China Research Center on Aging announced that there are now 202 million elderly in China -- the size of a large country.

According to my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt, the demographic guru, China's working-age population will shrink at a rate of 1 percent starting soon (if it hasn't already). By way of contrast, during the past three decades of massive economic growth, China's working-age population grew by 1.8 percent per year. The cohort of Chinese 65 and older will grow at an astonishing rate of 3.7 percent per year for the next two decades; the elderly as a percentage of the entire population will double, reaching 17.2 percent by 2030.

As for Japan, more than 23 percent of the population is already 65 or older. Over the next few decades the proportion of elderly in Japan could grow to one-third of the total population Already, the total population is shrinking and not being replaced through either birth or immigration. Over the next two decades, the working-age population will decline by about 17 percent from 81 million to 67 million.

Each country will lose military-age personnel needed to populate its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities or innovative industrial bases that build greater wealth and power. Accompanying the erosion in wealth and power will be a loss of political will to meet current leaders' ambitions.

The costs of the coming old-age tsunami are mind-boggling. China is relatively poor and has no national pension system and a limited patchwork of locally run systems. Japan is far wealthier but deeply indebted. Neither country has enough kids to support aging parents.

It would be easy enough to conclude that these demographic trends portend more inward-looking countries tending to their elderly. But there is nothing inevitable in international politics -- aging countries do not necessarily make more peaceful ones. And these are long-run trends; there can be much trouble before they're all old.

While it is amusing to consider that the walker may replace the missile as the weapon of choice for China and Japan, there are also far more dangerous possibilities. An aging Russia, for example, relies on its nuclear weapons (the most bang for the least manpower) for security. Both Japan and China are seriously interested in drones and robotics as systems of the future. Given the inclinations of youth in both countries, conflict may seem like a complicated video game. 

And like grumpy old men, the countries may become more impatient and disputatious. Where this plot leads is anyone's guess, but for guidance we are better off searching in the science-fiction section of the library.

Photo: /AFP/Getty Images