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February 17, 2011

Defending Strategy, Not “Defending Defense”
Posted by Jacob Stokes

BattleshipWashington’s entrenched defense budget hawks are either clueless or willfully ignorant. Following, the release of the fiscal year 2012 budget Monday, the “Defending Defense” trio of The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative released a statement. The first line was “strategy should always guide the defense budget, not vice versa.”

True enough. But looking at the group’s proposals, there’s no strategy involved. Strategy involves identifying threats, establishing what’s needed to combat those threats and then budgeting to ensure those capabilities. The Defending Defense group makes no such efforts. Instead, they use as their yardstick defense spending as a percentage of GDP. GDP tends to continually rise – which is, for them, exactly the point. If the defense budget is pegged to GDP, it keeps rising. 

They’re a wily bunch, though, so they have seized on the quip Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made about the presidential deficit commission’s proposals for cutting defense – Gates called the proposals “math, not strategy” -- to paint any cuts as dangerous to our national security. The reality is that no one is seriously calling for blindly implementing the deficit reduction commission’s proposals. And the other oft-cited proposal, Rep. Barney Frank’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, gave a menu of options that combined would equal $1 trillion in cuts over ten years. Some members support the full menu; others only support only some parts. 

The reality of who’s guilty of “math not strategy” is that Defending Defense has no strategy. In fact, there’s strong strategic rationale for cutting beyond what Secretary Gates has asked for. Even mainstream Washington voices such as the Center for a New American Security have called for proportional cuts to defense as part of a broader deficit reduction plan. CNAS goes even further than Secretary Gates, whose “cuts,” to be clear, are cuts to projected spending, not actual spending.

Defending Defense of course makes vague mutterings that sound like strategy. The trio argues that the cuts are “divorced from America’s current strategic reality” and that any reductions will make us unable to confront “China and other potential adversaries.” That must mean the group believes Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen is out of touch with strategic realities. He has called the national debt “the single biggest threat to our national security.” As for adversaries, there are none that pose a truly existential threat to the U.S. The closest any non-ally comes is China. 

The U.S. spends many times more on defense than China. According to the Pentagon, the Middle Kingdom shells out between $105 and $150 billion a year for defense. The U.S. “base” budget – not including money spent in Iraq or Afghanistan or money spent by the Department of Energy on nuclear weapons – is $523 billion. China understands this dynamic. That’s why China is investing in asymmetric weapons such as the “carrier killer” missile. They know they can’t afford to keep up with the U.S. in terms of dollars spent, but they can build weapons to take out more expensive weapons such as aircraft carriers with systems that cost very little. The flipside, of course, is that China’s ability to project power, the thing Americans should really feel threatened by, is quite limited. 

The defending defense group is so incapable of strategy that they can’t even kill pet weapons systems that the Pentagon has said it doesn’t want. These include the fiscal quagmire that is the Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which was designed for amphibious landings the U.S. has not done since Korea, and the problem-plagued Joint Strike Fighter second engine. 

Probably the starkest reality left out of the Defending Defense discussion is that of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Focusing discussion on the “base” budget become academic after ten years of war, especially when the price tag for the Iraq war along is estimated at $3 trillion. That’s not a momentary blip on the balance sheet, so the debate should not be coy about real costs. 

In tying up its arguments, the trio wrote that, “Defense is simply too important to be left to budgetary shell games.” Again, the standalone statement is correct. But by pegging defense spending to GDP -- in essence, requiring that it’s ever-rising – the members of Defending Defense show they have unmoored themselves from any serious discussion of strategy. They even refuse to acknowledge the threat of financial coercion or the crowding out of defense spending by increased interest payments, preferring instead the “budgetary shell games” they so piously rail against. 

Defending defense makes a crucial mistake: It supports continued defense spending without tying that spending to underlying strategic reality. In short, their approach amounts to math, not strategy.


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I think even conceding the "strategy should always drive budget" line goes a too far. As the rest of your piece shows well, strategic decisions inherently involve making resource based trade offs. Ultimately available resources and strategic discussions should be given equal footing. If you find that you can't handle an existential issue on the available budget than it makes sense to go back and get more, but one would be a rather poor strategist to not be able to accomplish that goal with the funding level we're discussing.

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