“You Can’t Surge Trust”

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While the sequester gets the headlines, a series of more serious issue threatens the Department of Defense and the nation: Congressional inaction on its budgetary responsibilities and what Professor Colin Dueck termed “strategic denial” during Congressional testimony Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, the country’s top military leaders testified before the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense on the effects of sequestration. Unsurprisingly, they warned of the harmful impact the cuts will have on military readiness. Surprisingly, however, they focused not only on the impending sequestration cuts, but also on the continued lack of a proper appropriations bill.

Congress has thus far failed to pass an actual defense appropriations bill for the current fiscal year, relying instead on a temporary funding measure known as a continuing resolution. Without a stable and predictable budgetary framework, the military is locked into the previous year’s allocations without the flexibility to reassign funds between accounts.

In many cases, the budget cuts will generate greater costs down the road as deployments are delayed, scheduled maintenance is postponed, training exercises are cancelled and multiyear contracts which would save millions of dollars cannot be signed. Personnel reductions are likely, both military and civilian, and services for military families will also be reduced in order to preserve as much funding as possible for the budget posts that most affect day-to-day readiness. But this patchwork of stop-gap measures is both costly and damaging over the long term. One Congressman likened the lack of routine maintanence to purchasing a new car and neglecting to change the oil: the vehicle will operate for a number of years but the eventual repairs will be much more costly.

At its core, strategy is the process by which choices are made as to how limited national resources are organized to achieve the nation’s security objectives. It is an exercise in matching ends with means. This is a tricky exercise, though, given the uncertainty associated with the future security environment, the tendency to prepare the military for fighting the current war rather than the next one, and the long lead time needed to develop new capabilities. For guidance, the United States develops a series of strategic documents to inform these decisions.

For military leaders, the current situation is particularly frustrating. Reductions in defense spending have been in the offing for some time, and both former defense secretaries Gates and Panetta argued repeatedly that cuts be made based on a strategic framework, as opposed to the sequestration method of cutting a certain percentage from each portion of the defense budget. The 2012 Strategic Guidance announced by the Obama administration provided precisely that framework, somewhat reducing the country’s grand strategic level of ambition and establishing some clear priorities.

The guidance was developed in conjunction with the Joint Chiefs, who determined that the strategy could be executed within the budgetary limits outlined last year, even as the continuing resolution created imbalances in military budgets. Now, however, the additional sequestration cuts threaten to create an even greater mismatch between ends and means.

Since the end of the Cold War and the void left by the collapsed Soviet Union, the United States has settled upon a grand strategy of primacy that entails remaining active in every region of the world as a supplier of global security and influence. For several decades, the force planning construct called for the US to be able to fight two major regional wars  simultaneously. Iraq and Afghanistan revealed the fallacy of the two war concept as the United States was unable to fully wage war in Afghanistan until the situation in Iraq had stabilized. Although that particular ambition was adjusted in the 2012 strategic document, the global power projection ambitions of the United States remain. But they remain underfunded.

The fiscal uncertainty in the US caused by the inability of Congress and the President to come to an agreement on revenue and outlays may damage the credibility of the US military abroad. Failure to deploy ships as scheduled, reductions in exercises and a general lowering of military readiness may weaken the deterrent effects of US power. For US allies and partners, it may create doubts as to the reliability of the US as a strategic partner. It will be possible to increase the US presence over time in the manner of the US “surge” in Afghanistan, but as the Commendant of the Marine Corps General James Amos so candidly stated on Tuesday: “You can’t surge trust.”

This brings us back to Professor Dueck, whose testimony came in another session several hours after the Joint Chiefs, and dovetailed nicely with the earlier hearing. Dueck stated quite bluntly:

The overall trend, which is growing worse, is that we have broad, declared international commitments that are under-resourced militarily. Under such circumstances, fundamentally, only a few basic options exist. Either the country can boost its military capabilities, to match existing commitments, or it can scale back dramatically on existing commitments, to match reduced capabilities. There is of course a third option, which is to claim that we will do more with less, while denying that any real tradeoffs exist. I would call this strategic denial. But this is not a true option. We can do more with more. We can do less with less. But when it comes to national defense, we can’t actually do more with less.

The upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review process could therefore become a particularly important document (though its not likely). The current strategy is based on a global strategic presence to secure the global commons and US allies, an active counterterrorism effort based on special operations and unmanned aerial vehicles, a set of credible conventional and nuclear deterrent capabilities for high intensity conflicts against state and non-state actors, technologically advanced counters to anti-access/area denial assets, and a series of preventative measures aimed at shaping the strategic landscape in unstable regions like Africa and the greater Middle East.

It is an ambitious and costly strategy that continues to assign the role of global security guarantor to the United States. If this is indeed the role for the US military, then it should, as Dueck argues, be funded accordingly. If a less ambitious strategy is chosen with a potentially greater acceptance of the risks that accompany strategic withdrawal, then the military should be given that guidance so that it can reorganize and distribute its resources accordingly.

As it stands today, there appears to be a significant mismatch between ambitions and resources, made even worse by the looming sequestration cuts. The continued bickering in Washington has now begun to weaken the strategic posture of the country because the services can no longer meet all of their operational, training, maintenance and acquisition requirements and commitments. The Joint Chiefs this week simply called on Congress to provide them with a stable and predictable budget framework – whatever the level – with which to plan the nation’s defenses.

For them, the current situation is untenable.

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  1. […] would be an unmitigated disaster for US intelligence gathering capabilities. Reminiscent of an earlier hearing last month with the Service Chiefs, Clapper seemed to argue that if his budget is to be reduced to […]

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