Penny Wise, Pound Foolish Defense Cuts

The Defense Department is proposing to cut small, important programs, rather than looking for major savings.

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The Army is looking for replacements for its standard-issue M4 rifle, shown here being fired by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Lauren Everett.

While there are some that think the defense budget today is too small and that "more" (money, troops, equipment, etc.) is the answer, that seems more aspirational than realistic in the current fiscal and political environment. As Robert D. Kaplan of Stratfor wrote recently (registration required):

Present and future threats are both insidious and less obvious than at any time in the past. The very interconnectedness of the world and technology's defeat of distance makes the oceans less of a barrier to the American mainland than ever before. But the elites have to do a much better job of explaining this to the public. And the armed services especially have to do a much better job of explaining to a skeptical public just why they are needed as much as ever in the past. To wit, air and naval platforms, because they take many years to design and build, require the necessary funding even when no obvious threat is on the horizon.

Indeed, democratic publics, with all their common sense, are nevertheless compulsively obsessed with momentary emotions – especially in an age of incessant polling – and are therefore less wise in planning for future contingencies.

So the armed services and the elites must explain why armies are required for emergencies – which periodically happen; and why navies and air forces are required for guarding the sea-lanes and thus essential for preserving the global system, upon which America depends.

Defense no longer constitutes a free ride where epic events automatically secure big budgets. The public will henceforth demand deep and lucid explanations.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

One of the biggest problems today is not about the defense budget itself, but in how to best divvy it up. Back in August of this year I mentioned that one of the biggest problems in terms of getting a handle on defense spending and its allocation is that Congress doesn't want to make the tough decisions in terms of base closings, procurement choices, end-strength adjustments and salary and benefits resourcing, where the true cost savings would be realized — John Nagl has also mentioned this recently.

This leads to the truism that when times get tough, management starts counting petty cash. Two recent "petty cash" decisions are the stopping of the Pentagon's Current News Early Bird news aggregation service and talk of shuttering the Pentagon's internal long-term strategy think tank the Office of Net Assessment.

Writing at Stars and Stripes Chris Carroll of reported last week that:

The Current News Early Bird, which began in the 1960s as a collection of news clippings and in recent years became widely available over the Internet to a far broader audience, ceased publication Oct. 1 when the federal government shut down. After the government reopened Oct. 17, however, the Early Bird did not return.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

This daily service basically created a common media picture across the Department of Defense about defense and security news-related items. Getting rid of such a service on the grounds of expense is penny wise and pound foolish. If it goes away for good, other offices across the department will have to create something like it in order to service the open source information requirements of their leaders. In terms of time and salary investments, this will assuredly cost much more than maintaining one shop to aggregate a central news collection site.

Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reported this week that the Office of Net Assessment annually costs approximately $10 million (out of a $525 billion Pentagon budget) to run. For this price, Andrew W. Marshall and his staff provide long-term strategic thinking for the secretary of defense. In the course of this work, this office has also nurtured generations of strategic thinkers in academia and think tanks (full disclosure: I have never received funding from that office and my organization has not received any funding from them in 20 years).

Some critics dismiss its opacity or argue that it funds the same people over and over again (sometimes referred to in some Washington circles as "St. Andrew's Prep"), but again, like the Early Bird, if the office wasn't doing this sort of work than someone else would be and, more importantly, at a time when many agree that there is a dearth of strategic thinking in defense strategy we need more, not less long-term thinking especially when the sum is so small (in terms of the defense budget).

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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