At TCS we have often called for a public debate of the goals and strategy of U.S. military engagement.
More than half of the federal discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon. The Trump administration requested more than $600 billion for the Department of Defense in the coming fiscal year. And in the last few days the House and Senate Armed Services Committees seem to be in a footrace to see which can authorize the most spending for the Pentagon.
The House bill touts a topline of $695.9 billion, albeit almost $21 billion of that is for defense related programs at the Department of Energy. Not to be in second place when it comes to throwing money at the Pentagon, the Senate Armed Services Committee raised the topline to a cool $700 billion.
Lots of money without a clear plan is bound to result in waste. Now, it’s true that you can’t spend an authorization. Only the House and Senate Appropriations Committees write legislation that actually translates into money the Pentagon can spend. The House appropriators were also working this week and that bill would spend $658 billion at the Department of Defense. Even if you add about $20 billion for the Department of Energy (which is appropriated in a separate bill) the appropriators, so far, are talking about a far less profligate level of spending.
Despite the high stakes, the public discussion of the Pentagon budget too frequently devolves into a Punch and Judy show of which heavy industrial sector yields the most clout in Congress. Shipbuilding? Aerospace? Navy peacoats? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
We should be starting with a military strategy, as developed by the military experts in the Pentagon, and then figuring out what we need to buy to execute that strategy. This process cannot be done in a budget vacuum, and working with policymakers will involve tradeoffs both within and without Defense. But it needs to start with strategy. Instead, all too often, the Congress decides what and how much to buy and the military uses those items to their best ability given the tactical tasks at hand.
For a little less than 20 years a process called the Quadrennial Defense Review was in place to require the Pentagon to look at its roles and missions after each Presidential election. The Fiscal Year 2017 Defense policy bill abolished that practice and put in place a new requirement to develop a National Defense Strategy. We’ll have to wait to pass judgment on this new practice.
But we were heartened to hear this exchange when the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, testified before the House Armed Services Committee. He was asked by Rep. Brown (D-MD) about the need for a strategy:
Mr. Brown: “As we sit here today wouldn’t you say that this is a costly undertaking that you’re asking us to take without a strategy? There’s been some conflicting comments, sometimes silence, on issues like: What are the decision rules regarding North Korea’s development of nuclear capability? What is an acceptable end state regarding China’s aggression in the South China Sea? There are just a lot of other components that would go into a strategy. So what we’re seeing here now seems more like a budget designed more for tactical success and not strategic victory.”
Secretary Mattis: “…What we have to do is define very clearly what is the threat that we see and in fact a number of studies have been mentioned here this evening that help in that definition. … We can define the threats to this country pretty well right now, that’s why I’m confident, Congressman.”
We’ll be awaiting the release of the newly required National Defense Strategy and we’ll be advocating a public debate about that strategy. Only then can the administration build a budget request to meet those requirements.