You can almost feel the collective blood pressure rising among the chattering classes this week in Washington, as the city awaits the annual bloodletting that inevitably accompanies the release of the Defense Budget—which this year falls on “Black” Monday, Feb.1—the same day that the Quadrennial Defense Review is due for publication.
In a prep session this morning, analysts at the capital’s premiere budgetary think tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) held a somewhat bleak briefing with reporters to go over where they see the budget and QDR going this year.
Kicking things off was Stanley Collender, managing director Qorvis Communications, who situated the defense budget within the confines of the overall federal budget. He said that he sees the Obama administration being forced to focus on deficit reduction programs across the board, and that “no way will the defense budget be immune…it has to be part of the deficit reduction.” Collender wouldn’t go into programmatic specifics, but added that force size will likely remain untouched. “No one is talking about reducing the size of the force,” he stated bluntly. The CBSA’s own Todd Harrison added that if the deficit continues to look like it does today, by fiscal year 2018—for the first time in history— “we will be spending more on interest on national debt than on defense.”
That said, both analysts along with CSBA’s Jim Thomas agreed that there likely won’t be any of the dramatic program cuts that we saw last year when the Army’s ill-starred $160 billion Future Combat Systems led the pack of a whole host of cuts spearheaded by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “A lot of the cuts were handled in April,” Harrison said.
Speaking of FCS, the program might be gone, but it’s hardly forgotten. The program was slated to provide the Army with its next-generation family of Manned Ground Combat Vehicles, and now that the vehicle program has been spun off into its own program, “it’s going to be difficult for them to maintain that funding wedge” in the future that had been in there for FCS. “If they can’t do that then it’s going to be difficult for the Army to maintain its ground systems procurement budget,” Harrison warned.
But the budget is only half the fun. The Pentagon’s supreme Information Operations document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, is also due to be released on Monday. And like the budget, the CSBA crew sees little reason to believe that the document will contain any radical changes from its 2005 predecessor. Jim Thomas put it bluntly: “I think any QDR disappoints” since the document has never called for a huge reallocation of resources or major shift in resourcing or strategy.
QDR’s tend to be dumping grounds for issues that the service chiefs don’t want to deal with in the four years between reports, and they’re also a convenient excuse for program managers and Pentagon planners to brush off pesky questions from reporters. “I think we’ll have better visibility on this once the QDR is released” is a line that every defense reporter hates to hear—and it’s one that we’ve been getting for the better part of a year now.
But still, Thomas said that the latest QDR “is about continuity and refinement” of issues brought up in the 2005 QDR, meaning that issues like counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, the growing role of Special Forces, and partner capacity building in places like Africa and the Middle East will all be retained and tweaked from the 2005 document. “This is the greatest degree of strategic continuity certainly since the end of the Cold War,” he continued, “and it offers some program stability as well as a consistent message to the services in terms of the direction they need to follow.” Finally, Thomas said that while the 2005 QDR spent a lot of time promoting big-ticket programs like Special Operations forces, it largely ignored critical counterterrorism “enablers” like intelligence analysts, communications specialists, and linguists, and that his money is on the 2009 QDR giving these intelligence-gathering assets a much bigger role to play.