US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Execute the Defense Builddown

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Click here to view the complete Presidential Inbox series. 

The Challenge:

The US defense budget is getting smaller, but a declining defense budget does not have to mean a decline in US national security or even American leadership around the world.  It does, however, mean each dollar on defense needs to be spent wisely.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn said last year: “We have arrived at the fifth inflection point of post-World War II defense spending…What these transitions in defense spending have in common is that DOD suffered a disproportionate loss of capability as a result…In other words, we have gone 0-for-4 in managing the drawdowns to date.” Lynn overstates the point,* but he rightly emphasizes that the question is not just should the defense budget go down, but how. 

The US defense budget in past builddowns has settled just under $400 billion in today’s dollars, never going below 40% of US discretionary spending and always at least 20% of all military spending worldwide.  Such level of resources should be more than ample to maintain a capable military ready for whatever the President calls on it to do. 

The Context:

Defense spending is subject to two different-though related-levels of politics.  First, defense spending tends to go down as part of a framework dealing with larger issues, specifically debts and deficits.  That was true in the 1990s, when defense spending was capped by the Budget Enforcement Act, which also capped all other discretionary spending and provided enforcement measures to tamp down the rise of entitlement spending.  And it looks to be true this time.  Though defense spending had already stopped growing, broad acceptance of defense spending declining came only with passage of the Budget Control Act and its discretionary caps in response to broader concerns about debt.  The current fiscal cliff negotiations may further cut in to defense spending, but again as part of a broader deal. 

Second, since defense spending is declining as part of that broader political deal, both the President and Congress have incentives to achieve savings from defense with as little controversy as possible.  That means deferring to the preferences of those who actually build the defense budget, who, in the end, are the military services.  Secretary Panetta has handled this political task brilliantly, which has paid off with all of the military service chiefs publicly supporting the budget the President sent to Congress even though it involved a one percent cut to defense spending.  The cost comes in how that cut is achieved.  To keep the support of the uniformed military, the civilian leadership defers to the military’s preferences, and since all four military services have different preferences, they, in turn, agree to not question each other’s preferences.  This budgeting by consensus rather than strategic priority is best illustrated by the Army’s share of the defense budget increasing this year even though the strategic justification for the cuts seemed to heavily disfavor the Army.  Both levels of politics encourage just letting the process generate defense budgets that are lower even if the results are not connected to strategic rationale. 

Yet the President did provide clear and even bold strategic guidance last year.  The strategy covered a lot of ground but notably called for two significant changes: a refocus on Asia-Pacific and an end to sizing the force to conduct stability operations like Iraq and Afghanistan.  These changes, moreover, accord well with how many observers have described US interests in the world and the most appropriate military to achieve those interests.  Such changes do come with some risk though; most notably they seem to shift the military away from being able to respond to the situation in Syria or other situations like it.  That risk is a sharp reminder that defense budgeting is never just about politics, but has real consequences for US interests around the world.  Still, if wise choices within-and without-the defense budget are made based on strategy and not politics, the defense budget builddown can be executed even while US national security and interests are well-cared for. 

Pragmatic Steps:

To overcome the thorny politics, preserve US national security and execute the defense builddown based on strategy, the President should take the following pragmatic steps:

1.       Break with tradition and spread the FY14 defense budget across the military services unevenly.  Such a break would force an explicit national conversation about US defense strategy.  Just a $10 billion swing from one service (presumably the Army given the President’s strategy) to the other services would change how the budget is split among the services as much as any time in the past 40 years.  Americans are ready for an argument about how to reduce spending strategically, rather than just turning the task over to the bureaucrats of the Pentagon.   With the environment so primed, the President has the opportunity to make his case, and such a change in budget share can be used to validate the President’s strategy. 

2.       Charge the new Secretary of Defense with executing the builddown in line with strategy rather than politics.  Secretary Panetta has previously announced his desire to leave his post sooner rather than later, with most assuming his departure will come by this summer.  When nominating Secretary Panetta’s replacement, the President can take advantage of the attention devoted to cabinet-level appointees and the confirmation process to emphasize the need to execute the defense builddown based on his strategy.  By charging the new Secretary explicitly, the President can take advantage of another public conversation, and more importantly, empower the incoming Secretary of Defense to make the difficult changes necessary within the Pentagon to adjust the declining budget to the President’s strategy.  The Secretary of Defense is undeniably a powerful figure, but still must deal with many political concerns inside and outside the Pentagon.  A public charge by the President will significantly increase the Secretary’s political capital and vastly improve the Secretary’s ability to actually make choices within the defense budget.

3.       Strengthen non-military capabilities to address US national security interests around the world.  Although a bold strategy can provide priorities, it cannot just wish away the events of the real world.  In the past when confronted with situations like Syria, Presidents have had to rely on the military, despite many arguing the military is not the right tool.  In the last decade, this missing capability has been all too apparent, and both the Bush and Obama administrations have taken steps to address it.  Those efforts are captured in the State Department’s Conflict Stabilization Office (CSO), which today represents the best hope for a non-military tool the President can use to address problems like instability.  By building up the CSO, the President will have a tool to address very real US national security concerns without turning to the military, and undoing the priorities of his defense strategy. (See Presidential Inbox #8; forthcoming in January for more discussion on the future of the Conflict Stabilization Office). 


*Lynn overdraws how poorly past builddowns have gone.  In the 1950s, President Eisenhower oversaw a defense builddown that made strong choices and directed defense spending to exactly where his grand strategy called for: nuclear weapons.  In the 1990s, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell presided over a very conscious builddown across the Bush and Clinton administrations that saw the military always capable of what it was called on to do.  And while Lynn includes the immediate decline in spending from World War II, that decline is better characterized as the start of a demobilizations like the US traditionally undertook after wars; one that was abruptly ended with the Korean War and the onset of the Cold War.  The drawdown in the 1970s under Nixon, Ford, and the start of Carter most clearly corresponds with a weakened force.  Still, if builddowns are judged by their alignment with strategy rather than the dictates of politics, all of them have been less than optimal and this one could and should be done better.  



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