There are plenty of compelling arguments to be made over how large the annual defense budget should be, what programs should be funded, and within what range the end strength of the U.S. armed forces should fall. It’s an inherently political fight, and the trick to winning the wrangling over the budget and its component programs is to at least appear to have a handle on what’s needed to support current operations while hedging against future threats. This complexity is what makes constructing each year’s defense budget equal parts art, science, and business plan, and what makes the line by line fights over the budget so intense.
But the fact that the arguments are so complex, and so bound up with domestic and international politics—and various subjective threat assessments informed by those politics—means that some arguments have to dive pretty deep into the programmatic weeds.
In an article posted on the National Review’s Web site late Friday, conservative defense analysts Thomas Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen and Jamie Fly—all of whom have been loudly advocating for larger defense budgets under the umbrella of the “Defending Defense Project”—head right for the Obama administration’s jugular in decrying the weapons programs cut over the last two Obama defense budgets. The trio argue that “the Obama years have seen more than $350 billion in weapons modernization alone eliminated from the defense budget.”
That number comes from the $330 billion Gates has slashed from future spending on canceled programs over the past two years, combined with $20 billion in future spending from the FY 11-12 proposal. But let’s be careful here. Future spending is at its heart an unknown quantity, so while the lines on a piece of paper may add up to $330 billion, it’s not like the defense budget shrank by that much under the Obama/Gates plan over the past two years. As Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center wrote on Friday, “these savings, if real, apply over a large number of years, since the lifetime of some of these programs would have gone well into the next decade.” This is just to say that the numbers are a little more elastic than the NRO piece implies.
And then there’s the Future Combat Systems. The article states that:
The collective cuts have taken a huge toll on the military. Killing the Army’s Future Combat Systems program not only deprived the service of a new generation of ground combat vehicles — for the fifth time since the end of the Cold War — but threw a monkey wrench in an innovative plan to “network” the force.
Future Combat Systems as we all know didn’t really go anywhere—some of its technologies were cut, some weren’t. In the end it was renamed the Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team (E-IBCT) modernization program, which continues to be very much alive today and may in fact be deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Armored Division in 2012. And the Army has hardly been deprived of a new generation of ground combat vehicles: competition for the replacement of the FCS Manned Ground Vehicle, dubbed the Ground Combat Vehicle, is ongoing, and according to the Army on schedule for fielding in 2017. With regard to networking the force, one can argue that the Army still hasn’t been able to fully wrap its arms around the massive scale problem, with FCS or no.
Defense budgets, like all budgets, should reflect a larger strategy for what the allocation of funds hopes to accomplish. Pentagon planners need to understand what kind of world—and what kind of threat—they expect to operate in so they can plan, spend and field the appropriate systems accordingly. F-22s, Ground Combat Vehicles, self-healing ad hoc communications networks and unmanned systems all have limited utility if there isn’t a valid strategy in place to direct where and when they should be employed, and under what circumstances. The last decade stands as a warning of what happens when tactical proficiency and creativity masquerades as strategy. The last 10 years also shows us that we don’t always get to choose where and how the next war will be fought, and when we do choose, we sometimes choose poorly.
While it most surely isn’t the job of the authors of this NRO article to come up with a workable national security strategy—especially since the Pentagon and White House haven’t been able to do so since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s—they also don’t offer any compelling reasons for keeping all of the problematic programs they complain have been cut.