Beyond the emotional and tragic tale of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address didn’t say much about defense, beyond an anodyne phrase: “And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.” It has been clear that defense budgets have been going down for more than three years now, so why underline the obvious? Because it’s unclear that the Pentagon has the message, or the defense industry, or Congress. The United States still doesn’t have a defense plan that is strategically driven. And it has a super-human effort to avoid the inevitable by all players in the budget game — the Pentagon, Congress, and the defense industry. No wonder they didn’t get the memo yet.
What the country has, instead, is the same kind of defense drawdown we have seen before — cuts that are spread around in lumpy bits and pieces. First, Washington cut projected dollars to buy hardware in the procurement budget, which always falls faster than the overall budget in a drawdown. But this happens piecemeal: The services try to take out things they don’t want, and Congress puts some of them back in. Then, to balance the books, both the Defense Department and Congress slash and burn when it comes to the smaller stuff nobody sees and few lobby for, like trucks and ammo.
Next, the Pentagon goes after the size of the force — first Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, said the nation could not be defended with fewer than 490,000 in the Army. Then he said it was not secure with an Army smaller than 450,000. Then he got the memo, and he appears to have agreed that it will be 420,000 by the end of this decade. Did strategy drive this? Not a bit; budgets did. Which, of course, sets off a small war between the Army and the Marine Corps — as it does every time — over which is America’s real ground force.
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This column appeared in Foreign Policy on January 30, 2014.
Photo courtesy of the White House