WASHINGTON: Turmoil, fear and a certain resolute grimness marked this week at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. The military scrambled to cope with a range of new threats as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Pentagon leadership begin to grapple with the grim future posed by the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Put it all together and you have a military in turmoil, as the four services prepare to battle for missions and budget dollars, while our nation’s senior leaders at the White House, State Department and Pentagon grope for clear strategic direction in a highly unpredictable world.
“I would just highlight the fear in the room at the Pentagon,” noted one of Washington’s top defense analysts, Todd Harrison, referring to a briefing Wednesday evening he and defense wallahs from four think tanks received from Hagel and senior staff. Harrison is the budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Data point:. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs James Winnefeld told the House Armed Services Committee Thursday about the sweeping effort ordered to rewrite the country’s crucial operational plans 18 months ahead of the usual schedule. Kudos to Rep. Mac Thornberry for knowing about this and asking about it in an open hearing. Kudos to Winnefeld for a surprisingly honest — if lacking in detail — answer. (Tip of hat to Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes for spotting this and getting details.)
“We don’t want to fight the last war,” Winnefeld told Thornberry. “We’re always accused of fighting the last war. I don’t want to do that.”
Data point: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided to share the results of the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) with the American taxpayers and Congress on Wednesday. In past years, a high-level review like this would probably have remained either classified or pegged under the stupidest and hoariest of Pentagon rubrics, “pre-decisional.”
Mackenzie Eaglen, defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, said yesterday evening that senior Pentagon officials had told her earlier in the week that the results would not be released. (As anyone who deals much with the American military knows, those who rely on publicly available official papers, memos and formal briefings have completely missed the boat when it comes to important decisions. They only know about them once the decisions been taken and can’t influence the result.)
Data point: Four think thanks here released results of their own version of the SCMR that raised serious questions about the Pentagon’s reluctance to consider deeper cuts to readiness funding, as well as the country’s long-term ability to buy the advanced weapons our troops need to make the other guy die when we go to war. For example, the Long Range Strike bomber program may be cut under one of the options developed for the SCMR, Todd Harrison told reporters yesterday evening. If you look at their chart above, you’ll see where LRS gets whacked.
The five think tankers at yesterday evening’s event broadly agreed that the services and senior Pentagon leadership — deeply concerned about decaying readiness and the possibility of a hollow force — should consider much deeper cuts to readiness funding to preserve programs like LRS.
“We took the Willie Sutton approach,” Eaglen said. “We went where the money is, which DoD is still not willing to do.” Her colleagues nodded their agreement. One of the areas the Pentagon left largely untouched is the 800,000-strong civilian workforce, which Eaglen and her colleagues think can be a rich source of savings. But the Pentagon first has to know much more about the structure, composition and locations of the workforce. “They really told us, we really have no visibility about them,” she said.
After all, the analysts argue, readiness can be fixed relatively quickly through the simple application of cash and training. Research and development — let alone actual procurement — of advanced weapons often takes 10-15 years to get something workable.
Taking more money out of readiness can also be accomplished through application of concepts like tiered readiness. One of the ideas Harrison and other tossed around was tiered readiness not just inside each service but across the military — something many believe already happens in practice: For example, the Marines designate themselves as the nation’s 911 force; Special Operations troops are often in conflict zones before the conventional military arrives.
Hagel and his coterie have what the analysts agreed was a grand chance to rebuild the United States military, but it’s a fairly narrow window, argued David Berteau of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Given the fiscal guidance required in nine months, Berteau said the Pentagon has that much time to make major decisions in light of sequestration, which no one at CSBA thought was going away any time soon.
Final data point: If the Pentagon presents budgets equal to or less than the levels set by the Budget Control Act (sequestration’s enabler) then the Pentagon has complete freedom to move its money around and would not face the debilitating and strategically useless prospect of being forced to cut 10 percent from each account, Harrison told us.
Meanwhile, as we first reported, Reps. Paul Ryan and Jim Cooper presented their bill to help free DoD from that requirement it cut from each account. To do so, the Pentagon would have to declare it “an urgent national priority or the consequences of a national emergency resulting from such sequestration, as determined by the Secretary of Defense.”
I asked Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, about the bill a few hours after it was introduced. He was not impressed.
“I don’t think their bill is the right approach for us to take because I am very concerned about turning all the reprogramming over to the Pentagon, because the House has an oversight role it must continue to play,” Forbes said.
The most positive thing we heard this week in terms of defense planning concerned the Ryan-Cooper bill. “This is a good sign in that serious folks on both sides of the aisle are looking at this defense spending,” a congressional aide told us. Maybe, but it’s almost certainly not enough.