The Best Defense

Gambling on the defense budget’s "double whammy": How to avoid strip poker

By David Forman

Best Defense guest columnist

Though smaller defense budgets are now as certain as death and taxes, the real question is "just how bad is it going to be?" According to Clark Murdock, who spoke at a recent panel hosted at CSIS, fewer dollars is only half the issue. The more significant, though less discussed, problem is how "weak" defense dollars have become due to internal cost growth. This "double whammy" of fewer and weaker dollars will make cuts feel twice as bad as they look on paper.

Current Operations and Maintenance (O&M) costs are projected to consume 80 percent of the budget by 2021, and the entire budget by 2039. Even though total force size increased only 3 percent over the last decade, personnel costs increased 90 percent. These projections are clearly unsustainable, but since the Defense Department can't do without people or operations, what should it do?

Mr. Murdock recommends re-conceptualizing the defense budgeting structure and sticking to it by asking "how much is affordable" instead of "how much is enough." The budget should have two major categories. The first category, "Institutional Support," should not exceed 30 percent of the total budget and would cover training, recruiting, facilities, and administration of the force. The other 70 percent should be allotted to the "Operational Force" that would directly support military operations for combatant commanders. Within the Operational Force allotment, 35-50 percent should be spent on common core capabilities (considered the musts), and the other 20-35 percent should be spent on strategic investment (considered the coulds).

Time will tell if the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review adopts these recommendations, but the panel at CSIS brought to light two excellent points that can help minimize the gamble on this double whammy.

First, strategy development needs to become an iterative process. As it stands now, combatant commanders take strategic guidance and establish force requirements based on cost assumptions, but when their assumptions price out too high, we do not adjust strategy to make it affordable and determine where to accept more risk.

Second, military personnel compensation reform can't garner congressional support because the focus is mainly on cuts to current compensation. Todd Harrison of CSBA provided the freshest perspective I've seen by referring to his report on maximizing value from the entire military compensation system. Instead of just cutting, we need to adjust compensation to areas of cost-effective value to service members. Military personnel value certain benefits more than others, but not all benefits have the same relative government cost for perceived value. By measuring value and cost (as he did in his report) and spending accordingly, the Defense Department can still attract high quality personnel without consuming the entire budget.

As the next defense secretary confronts a lower top-line budget, with or without sequestration, internal cost growth must be addressed. Now may be the best time to re-conceptualize how defense dollars are allocated. Success in this process will create a sustainable budgeting structure that supports an affordable national security strategy executed by a high quality and well-compensated military force of all-volunteer Americans.

LCDR David Forman, USN, is a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views presented here are his own and do not represent those of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


The Best Defense

Where is the garrison Army going? I worry it is heading back to spit and polish, while ignoring hard lessons of the last decade

By "58 Scout"

Best Defense guest columnist

The more we draw down from our current conflicts the more of a push from the top I am seeing to become a more disciplined force. Got it -- "always be better" -- but a lot of the comments that myself and many of my peers keep hearing are quite disturbing and, to be honest, generally insulting. 

During my redeployment briefings we received a video message from the U.S. Army Pacific Commander. In it was the typical "good job, you are the country's finest, etc. etc.," but what really burned me, and most of the men and women who watched the video, was one of the CG's comments. I am paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect that "this is the best Army I have seen in 30 years of service...but we need to take it back to pre-war Army." Really?

The final straw for me was this piece I found in the Army Times about SMA Chandler and his changes for the force. That article is about sending CSMs to legal courses to do their jobs better, but again, the intent is the same and getting louder.

Chandler told the senior enlisted leaders to institute programs at their posts, camps, and stations to apply lessons learned to the Profession of Arms Campaign. The Profession of Arms has become a lost art, especially among junior officers and NCOs. The deployment cycle of the past decade eroded everything from common military courtesies to fitness standards. Of great concern is the lack of counseling, leadership, and decision-making skills needed by midgrade NCOs and junior officers. 

I am deeply concerned about just what he is trying to address. Yes, the garrison Army will have more saluting, parade rest, clean uniforms, haircuts, etc., but he has cut deeper. I'm confused -- what decision-making skills should the combat proven SSG need to work on? And let's be honest: I don't think that the SMA and most of the senior officers and NCOs have ever really walked in those shoes. During these wars the decisions made by junior officers and NCOs, at the company and platoon level, have been some of the most important. It makes me angry because I know what I have done and what so many others like me have done and more. The entire intent of being a professional soldier is going to war and destroying the enemy. What most of us in the military have trained for -- and done -- several times. Yes, there were a lot of growing pains over the last decade, especially learning what was most important to accomplish this task. We learned: Shooting, first aid, cultural lessons -- important! Haircuts, hands in pockets, pressing uniforms? Not that important. 

The senior leaders of today's Army want to go back to the Army that they grew up in -- the Army of the 80s and 90s, with the spit-polished boots, starched uniforms, skin-tight haircuts. To them, these are the signs of a disciplined force. To the senior leaders of the Army I say this: Bring back the tough and realistic training standards that made us a focused and disciplined force. Those are the things that will prepare the force for challenges that lie ahead in the decades to come. Incorporate this training with the volumes of lessons learned in leadership and decision-making, while under fire, by our junior officers and NCOs. The success and failures of the next decade will be based on your leadership and decision-making skills and how we cultivate our junior officers and NCOs. 

I'm not sure where this Army is going but I am deeply concerned. Maybe I'm missing something that can only be seen from the top. Or maybe the SMA thinks doing circles around the parade field will draw attention away from the fact that we don't have any money for real combat training. 

"58 Scout" is an active-duty soldier.