Friday, January 6, 2012

On The New Direction In Defense

“It’s so big [the defense budget] that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of headroom to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that.”    -President Obama, July 6, 2011

Yesterday's announcement at the Pentagon of the President's new Defense Strategy is everything he said it was.  It is a new direction.  It does represent an "inflection point".  The "tide of war" is receding.  It is proper to focus on Asia, and it is advisable to return ground force levels to pre-9-11 levels.  The President's approach is logical, coherent, and straightforward---all the way from B to Z.  It's the A to B leap that I don't accept.
What do I mean by the "A to B" leap?  Well, in order for the President's approach to be thoroughly logical, one must accept that our nation's defense should undergo budget cuts in an era of fiscal austerity, that a function of the federal government mandated in the Constitution must somehow be diminished in order to fund myriad federal programs of dubious worth.  Put another way, under the President's approach--when as the budget axe falls, defense is FIRST in line (tied with all other discretionary outlays) rather than last in line--where I believe it should be.  I have seen some in the blogosphere--including some people I agree with on most issues--claim that Congress--and especially Congressional Republicans--are complicit in these cuts, as they were party to the Budget Control Act.  There is logic and merit in this argument, but the simple truth of the atmosphere on the Hill last year was that divided government drove compromises--and in this case, gutting the defense budget to pay for domestic priorities was job #1 for many Democrats in Congress--the wind behind the President's sails. 

People much smarter than I have already opined on the jot and tittle of the strategy, so I will make only a few points.  I will admit to my biases up front, as I am not a political supporter of the President, and I am a center-right blogger at The Conservative Wahoo.  Here are a few summary thoughts.
  • Not driven by strategy.  While I greatly respect the work of the Joint Chiefs and senior civil servants at the Pentagon in responding to the President’s mandate, the plain truth is they started their deliberations $487B in the hole, which represented the budget hit the President insisted upon in last year’s Budget Control Act.  That was a political decision on the part of a President who uses the Defense Budget like an ATM to fund misguided political priorities like Solyndra and paybacks to his cronies in public sector unions. 
  • Questionable Geo-strategy.  While the President believes we can “assume more risk” in Europe by cutting back our commitments there, he ignores potential tinder boxes all along Europe’s southern and eastern flanks.  Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria—much of the Mediterranean littoral is governed (or under-governed) by questionable and hostile regimes.  Additionally, our steadfast ally in the region—Israel—is increasingly surrounded by regimes newly dedicated to its instability, even as we cut back both our military and our naval presence in the region.
  • Proof in the Pudding.  What we heard yesterday were pleasant words about shifts in priorities and a new security environment.  What remains to be seen is what this means in budgetary terms, what real choices were made.  When the FY13 budget is released after the State of the Union address, will we  find a strategy of “Prioritization by Reduction”?—that is, while the whole gets smaller, parts of it get smaller slower than others—which can then be claimed as “shifts in priorities” and “hard strategic choices”?  I predict that this budget will leave us with a smaller force, capable of doing fewer things, in fewer places, and less well.
  • Asian Focus.  The President quite rightly speaks of a shift in emphasis to the Pacific, what does he mean by that?  Does it mean he will increase our shipbuilding budget?  Does it mean we will grow the Navy?  Does it mean we will fully fund maintenance and modernization accounts?  Or does it mean that we will play a strategic shell-game, pushing smaller, less capable ships forward to supplement a fleet already on the ragged edge of readiness, while "protecting the industrial base" by relying on the construction of those same smaller and less capable ships?  Or will it be some combination of the above?  Again, we won't know these answers until the budget pops after the State of the Union.  
Again--if you believe that Defense should be a domestic bill-payer, than this approach makes a lot of sense.  If you believe otherwise, than it is hard to be supportive of this approach.

Bryan McGrath

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