Loose Canons

Dusty Springfield’s Pentagon Budget

Wishful thinking doesn’t begin to describe it.

By 4.15.13

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The biggest and most unreported story of last week was the new fairy-tale Pentagon budget.

My pal, former Pentagon comptroller Dave Patterson, is a master of the understatement. We were talking about the new Pentagon budget when it came out last Wednesday, and Dave said it wasn’t “informed by sequestration.” Which is tantamount to saying that Dewey discomfited the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay.

As part of the newly-devised Obama budget, the Pentagon element announced by Chuckie Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey amounts to $526.6 billion for FY 2014. It ignores the effect of sequestration and assumes, hopes, and dreams that the whole Obama budget package will be passed and sequestration negated.

This from an administration run by a president who has repeatedly promised to veto any bill that relieved the Pentagon of the burdens of sequestration.

If you review Hagel’s statements at his press conference on the budget, it only gets worse. One reporter asked him directly about the complete lack of reality in the budget: “This budget is predicated on the hope that this balanced deficit reduction plan will be accepted by Congress, and instead of getting hit with $500 billion, you'll be reduced by $150 billion over the next 10 years. Realistically, you both know the landscape. This has not worked out in the last year. What is [sic] the chances of this package passing?”

Hagel’s nearly-incoherent answer has to be read in full:

Well, I'll give you an answer, and then General Dempsey may want to respond. A couple of observations to your question. First, that's why I directed the deputy secretary of defense, Ash Carter, working along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to undertake a strategic choice and budget and management review to address the reality of what we are living with -- living with now, and that is the reality that you noted, sequestration is law. But interestingly enough, both the House and Senate budget resolutions, as well as the President's Budget, are about the same, as it relates to the amount of money for the Defense Department. 

Now, I don't think anybody is minimizing the reality of sequestration as law. And I've noted, and as Marty has, we all are preparing for that reality. We're taking significant cuts this fiscal year. 

But at the same time, we have -- as a representative government -- an opportunity to get beyond that and hopefully find a budget resolution, both from the Congress and the president, that will allow us not only some new flexibilities, but some new numbers. And when also you look at -- this is a $600 billion enterprise, the Department of Defense. You can't shift budget dynamics and planning in a month or two. These are long-term dynamics. 

So we have to plan for budgets, of course -- that's why any entity has a budget -- not unmindful of sequestration and what's coming down the road if nothing is done, if a compromise can't be made on a new budget act. We are planning for every eventuality. Again, that's why I directed that strategic review, because it may not happen. But this is uncertain. I think that's the -- I will end my comments and go to Marty. 

We are living in a world of complete uncertainty. Also, the flexibility that we need to manage, any institution needs to manage is not there in the same way that we need it to be there and hopefully will be there. And the other part of that is time. 

This is why the President's Budget numbers are particularly important, because of the $150 billion that -- in his budget over the next 10 years, most of that is at the back end that gives this institution the time to manage and respond and adjust to staying -- fulfilling -- and fulfilling the strategic interests and guidance not only of what the president has given this institution a couple of years ago, but also our national security interests, our readiness interests, to protect the security of this nation. And that's what we've got to look at, all those options, and we are. 

Huh?

What Hagel is saying first – and most importantly – is that he has directed a “strategic and budget review” to match the strategy to the budget, not the other way around. Obama himself had hinted this was going on, and we could only hope – like Hagel is hoping that the Obama budget passes – that it wasn’t true. But it is.

For the first time ever, we’re letting our national security strategy be dictated by the amount we’ve chosen to spend on defense. It’s supposed to be the other way around. You measure the threats, derive a strategy to deter or defeat them, and then come up with a budget to accomplish the strategy. Even after the World Wars – when our strategies were, in the 1920s through 1940, isolationism, and in the 1950s through 1990 the Cold War – our strategies dictated the budget, not the other way around.

The danger in this is as plain as the bellicosity of nuclear weapons-bound North Korea and Iran. It’s as dangerous as the thousands of cyber attacks that China commits against us every day. And it renders false Obama’s other so-called defense “strategies,” such as the promised shift of forces to the Pacific theater. When the sequestered budget reduces or eliminates our ability to deter or defeat these threats, when our allies see how we’re failing to meet our promises, our enemies will grow stronger and bolder. There will be war, both hot and cold.

Hagel didn’t stop there. The rest of his statement is a loopy explanation of budget gimmickry. First, none of the Pentagon’s planned budget can be executed without legislation relieving it of sequestration. So, instead of actually getting that legislation, Hagel – like Obama – assumes it’ll happen.

Not only is he assuming that he’ll have more to spend than the sequestration law allows, he’s also assuming that he will get the authority – which he now lacks – to shift the spending cuts around. Hagel is promising to “back-load” the sequestration cuts (which he just assumed would disappear) into the far years of a ten-year budget instead of applying them every year. By this sleight of hand, he makes it appear that sequestration will take only $150 billion from the Pentagon rather than the $600 billion the law requires it to take.

The other great danger here – in addition to having the budget dictate our national military strategy – is the lack of planning this moronic mess imposes across the board.

From the time the sequestration law was passed in August 2011 until just a couple of months ago, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta refused (on White House instructions) to plan how to implement the cost cuts. As a result, the first quarter of this year was spent scrambling to do just that. But now Hagel has assumed sequestration away. Though he said – at that same press conference -- that the Pentagon was planning for everything, that’s manifestly false because it can’t.

If you’re implementing sequestration for FY 2013 – which the Pentagon is, because it’s the law – that reduced whatever budget you otherwise planned. If you have a $526 billion budget request for FY 2014, you plan on spending that much until congress or the president mandates otherwise. But Congress already has mandated sequestration. To spend more without Congress’s legislative permission is illegal.

So what’s a military planner to do? Dusty Springfield had the answer way back when she sang, “Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'.” That’s all that’s left to do.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.