Shadow Government

Hagel's Budget Headache

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has tried to make the most out of a miserable budget situation, and, as fellow Shadow Government contributor Kori Schake argues, he has to some extent done so. The attitude of the White House, which seeks to avoid any sort of military engagement, except, perhaps, those that can be conducted by special operation forces, certainly did not help him. So he did what he could not only to attempt to kill a variety of programs, but also to lower the rate of growth of military pay and benefits that grew exponentially during the last decade.

Unfortunately, some of Hagel's decisions appear to be inconsistent with the strategic imperatives that he outlined, others have little chance of winning congressional approval, and still others appear to have overlooked opportunities for additional savings. Among those decisions in the first category are the cutbacks in naval forces. While it is true that each individual ship is far more capable than the ship it replaced in the fleet, it is nevertheless true that, for blue-water navies in particular, numbers do matter. If the United States is to pivot to Asia while at the same time, planning -- in Hagel's words -- to "sustain commitments to key allies and partners in the Middle East and Europe," it requires a significantly larger fleet than the current program will sustain.

The planned reduction of the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf sends the wrong signal to both friends and foes. The absence of significant naval forces in the Mediterranean has created a vacuum that the Russians have filled; for the first time in decades, Russian ships outnumber those of the United States in that sea. And the Navy would be hard-pressed to cope with any threats to NATO allies in the Baltic, if its presence remained imperative in the Pacific Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

This is not to assert that Hagel was wrong in capping production of the littoral combat ship (LCS), for example. The program had more than doubled in cost since its inception in the early 2000s. Many analysts argued that the ship's capability simply did not justify its cost; nor, it was asserted, was the LCS capable of operating in the highest threat environments. But the secretary gave no indication as to when the class of frigates that would replace the LCS would actually enter the fleet, or how much each ship might cost, or where the money would come from.

Just as there are too few ships to implement the administration's nominal national security strategy, so are the land forces in the current plan inadequate for the missions they might be asked to carry out. While Hagel linked the cuts in land forces to the administration's decision not to size the force for "long and large stability operations," he did not address the possibility that there are other types of combat operations apart from "stability ops." By not limiting himself to reducing the size of the Army, but also reducing the levels of the Reserves, National Guard, and Marine Corps, Hagel effectively ruled out the possibility that the United States could pursue two major contingencies simultaneously. With Korea an ongoing candidate for one of those contingencies, it appears there is little room for that unforeseen contingency that America seems to fight every few years.

Hagel's efficiency reductions all make good sense, at least to many defense analysts. But Congress -- as opposed to congressional staff -- is a political body, not an analytical one. And the politics that have made it impossible to plan for a new round of base closures, much less implement one, are unlikely to change in an election year.

Similarly, while many of Hagel's proposals to limit military benefits have some merit, he may discover that Congress may find it convenient to argue that it need not take any action until after the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission reports a year from now (full disclosure -- I serve on the commission). That fact that Hagel seems to have overlooked the fact that the commission is meant to deal with the gamut of compensation issues, as well as retirement issues, will provide even more of an excuse for those who would rather not take any action that affects the troops, especially as so many are still fighting, and dying, in Afghanistan.

Finally, it is somewhat surprising that the secretary did not say anything about additional reductions in the civilian workforce beyond the "targeted reductions" that he had previously announced. That force has grown so sharply in the past decade that one wonders why thousands more civilians are not being encouraged (or asked) to leave or retire, as is the case with their land-force counterparts. After all, civilians do not actually fight the nation's wars; they support those who do.

Hagel correctly pointed out that this is a budget-driven defense program. And he rightly outlined the risks that this program will magnify. It is not clear whether the White House shares these concerns with the Pentagon, however. And therein lies the rub. For should deterrence fail, the cost in American human and material resources could dwarf the savings realized by the current reductions in defense programs. For whatever its attitude to spending dollars for defense -- and it has been lukewarm at best -- this politically hypersensitive administration should realize that, as Bob Gates has put it so bluntly, the enemy gets to vote.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Two Cheers for Secretary Hagel as Defense Budget Is Released

The Obama administration's fiscal 2015 defense budget was released today, Feb. 24; its details have already been unearthed by the nation's best defense journalists. The headline making news is that under the Hagel budget, "America will have the smallest Army since World War II." This is such a manipulative appeal. We ought not to wring our hands that America does not have an Army the size of that which fought the Wehrmacht -- America also doesn't have enemies of the magnitude of the Wehrmacht. Moreover, the United States not only has a better military than that which fought World War II, but it also has a much better military than that which stood astride the world as a colossus in 2001. In 2001, it cost the country $2,300 to outfit a Marine for combat; today the price tag is $21,000. With that order of magnitude increase in expense has come an order of magnitude improvement in capability. Not only are we making fewer American casualties of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, but we are making them more lethal to our enemies. They have dramatically increased visibility and understanding of the battlefield, dramatically increased firepower, dramatically increased ranges across which to attack, and dramatically increased precision when they do attack. Moreover, the country has a combat-hardened volunteer military, with young leaders experienced in taking responsibility at much lower levels and for much greater stakes than the Army that fought World War II.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deserves considerable credit for owning up to the fiscal reality that defense spending will no longer have galloping rates of increase. Specifically, he deserves credit for bringing the department's budget into compliance with the law. An obvious point, one would think, is that the budget request ought to be in line with the Defense Department spending cap legislated in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Not something we loyal opposition should applaud, since it ought to be standard practice. Yet this is the first budget that acknowledges Congress has given federal spending guidelines that must be followed. The budgets submitted by Barack Obama's administration were in excess of the top line. If the Defense Department had been within its allotted spending cap, sequestration would not have been triggered. The department was thus the proximate cause of the disastrous effects of sequestration about which the department wailed and gnashed its teeth. But the White House is principally to blame, because it issued the guidance instructing DOD to program as though sequestration would never occur. Such blatant politicization of the country's national security is sadly the norm for the Obama White House. That DOD pushed back, quietly and within the administration, for OMB instruction that would permit more sensible programming is a real achievement, and Hagel deserves credit for it.

The second cheer is for attempting to curtail the rate at which benefits are being expanded for troops. By DOD's own calculations, the average pay and benefits for the military have increased from $44,200 per person in 2001 to $81,600 in 2014. The country simply cannot afford to continue raising the salary and benefits packages to its forces at anything like that rate -- the all-volunteer force is becoming unaffordable. Unless the rate of these burgeoning expenses is reined in, the country will not be able to afford the weapons and training that keep the military alive and winning the nation's wars. Restricting the military to a 1 percent pay raise and some modest co-pays for family members and veterans -- but not affecting currently serving soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen -- is not only sensible defense policy, but it's essential to retaining a war-winning military.

I withhold a third cheer, though, because it does not appear that Hagel has done the essential spade work to get authorization and appropriation for anything near what the Department of Defense is asking. "Cutting benefits to our troops" -- even though DOD's proposal continues to increase benefits -- is woefully unpopular in Congress, especially in an election year. Getting legislators to "vote against the troops" will be a huge political challenge, the kind that requires 18 months of planning and horse trading and shaping constituents' perceptions. Without having shaped the battlefield in that way, there's little likelihood that the budget that Hagel gets will much resemble the budget that Hagel is requesting.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images