Going Hollow: The Hagel Preview of the FY2015 Defense Budget

It does not take much vision to predict that Secretary Hagel and the Obama Administration’s FY2015 defense budget submissions are going to be the subject of bitter partisan criticism. It is an election year and virtually everything in Washington is already the subject of bitter partisan criticism. Playing the national security card is a perennial aspect of U.S. politics, as is playing it to court veterans, National Guard supporters, defense manufacturers, and the more doctrinaire conservatives.

The problem is that simply focusing on total spending levels does not address the critical problems in shaping our future defense posture and is not particularly relevant. Secretary Hagel’s focus on spending more than the Sequestration level in his February 24th speech announcing the FY2015 defense budget dodges around fundamental problems in the way we plan defense spending, but does any Republican focus on spending more without focusing on realistic costs or setting any meaningful goals for the future?

At the simplest level of budgetary planning, the Secretary’s budget statements ignore the fact that the Congressional Budget Office projects that the Department’s failure to manage the real-world crises in personnel, modernization, and readiness costs will have as negative an overall budget impact over time as Sequestration will. Ignoring the Department’s long history of undercosting its budget, its cost overruns, and the resulting cuts in forces, modernization, and readiness means one more year of failing to cope with reality.  Presenting an unaffordable plan is as bad as failing to budget enough money.

The far more serious problem, however, is that Secretary Hagel fails to provide any meaningful picture of where the U.S. is going and of the defense posture it is trying to create. He focuses on current spending levels and not on any aspect of programming. He talks about cuts in personnel, equipment, and force strength in case-specific terms, but does not address readiness and does not address any plan or provide any serious details as to what the United States is seeking in in terms of changes in its alliances and partnerships,  and its specific goals in force levels, deployments, modernization, personnel, and readiness.

The Secretary states that, “We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power, and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States.” Fine but how? Where? When? And to what end?  Aside from vague generalities, the Secretary’s plans and sense of direction seem to go no further than getting through FY2016.

His speech also states that, “As we end our combat mission in Afghanistan, this will be the first budget to fully reflect the transition DoD is making for after 13 years of war – the longest conflict in our nation’s history.” Oh really? When there is no clear plan for transition in Afghanistan? When he makes no announcement about future spending on the war? And, when press accounts say that the OCO figure for future spending on the war that is not included in the Secretary’s total for Baseline Spending could be as high as $80 billion in FY2015 alone?

Worse, a careful reading of the speech indicates that the Secretary has no real spending plan even for FY2015. Consider what he really is saying about the status of FY2015 budgeting in the following passage:

Under the spending limits of the Bipartisan Budget Act, DoD’s budget is roughly $496 billion this Fiscal Year – or $31 billion below what the President requested.  The law also limits DoD spending in Fiscal Year 2015 to $496 billion, which is $45 billion less than was projected in the President’s budget request last year.  So while DoD welcomes the measure of relief and stability that the [Bipartisan] Budget Act provided, it still forces us to cut more than $75 billion over this two-year period, in addition to the $37 billion cut we took last year and the Budget Control Act’s 10-year reductions of $487 billion.  And sequestration-level cuts remain the law for Fiscal Year 2016 and beyond.

The President will soon submit a budget request that adheres to Bipartisan Budget Act spending limits for Fiscal Year 2015.  But it is clear that under these limits the military will still face significant readiness and modernization challenges next year.  To close these gaps, the President’s budget will include an Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.  This initiative is a detailed proposal that is part of the President’s budget submission.  It would provide an additional $26 billion for the Defense Department in Fiscal Year 2015. 

There are, however, at least some numbers in this statement. The Secretary fails to provide any indication of where America’s defense posture is going. He does say that: 

  • First, the development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations that means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.
  • Second, defense spending is not expected to reach the levels projected in the five-year budget plan submitted by the President last year. 

Given these realities, we must now adapt, innovate, and make difficult decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable – maintaining its technological edge over all potential adversaries.

Fine, but Secretary Hagel says almost nothing about how the Department will create programs to meet these goals. He instead locks himself firmly into making cuts in FY2015 with no meaningful picture of the future.

However, as a consequence of large budget cuts, our future force will assume additional risks in certain areas.

In crafting this package, we prioritized DoD’s strategic interests and matched them to budget resources.  This required a series of difficult choices: 

  • We chose further reductions in troop strength and force structure in every military service – active and reserve – in order to sustain our readiness and technological superiority, and to protect critical capabilities like Special Operations Forces and cyber resources.
  • We chose to terminate or delay some modernization programs to protect higher priorities in procurement, research, and development.
  • And we chose to slow the growth of military compensation costs in ways that will preserve the quality of the all-volunteer force, but also free up critical funds needed for sustaining training, readiness, and modernization.

While the Secretary talks about specific cuts, and the need to modernize, there is no overall modernization plan. In fact, when he talks about the strategic priorities the defense budget is to buy, he says little more than:

Our recommendations were guided by an updated defense strategy that builds on the President’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance.  As described in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review report, this defense strategy is focused on: 

  • Defending the homeland against all strategic threats;
  • Building security globally by projecting U.S. influence and deterring aggression; and;
  • Remaining prepared to win decisively against any adversary should deterrence fail. 

To fulfill this strategy DoD will continue to shift its operational focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific, sustain commitments to key allies and partners in the Middle East and Europe, maintain engagement in other regions, and continue to aggressively pursue global terrorist networks.

Really? We still don’t know what our posture is going be in the Middle East or in rebalancing to Asia? Can we define our strategic or spending goals for strategic partnerships at a time when it is all too clear our allies seriously question our credibility and our intentions?

Worse, we are going to leave these issues to be addressed in the future by another mindless waste of time like the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). All the past QDRs have been set so far in the future to be practical or relevant. Each successive QDR has proved to be one more colostomy bag after another of half-digested concepts and vague strategic priorities filled with noise and futility and signifying nothing. They have failed to set any meaningful goals for implementing the strategies they discuss, and have failed to provide any realistic plans and details about how we will shape alliances and partnerships, force levels, deployments, modernization, personnel, and readiness.

Like all of his recent predecessors, Secretary Hagel has failed dismally to show the U.S. has any real plans for the future and to provide any meaningful sense of direction and real justification for defense spending. The best that can be said of his speech on the FY2015 defense budget is that U.S. strategy and forces will go hollow in a kinder and gentler manner than simply enforcing sequestration.

We do need to avoid cutting our forces, military capabilities, and defense spending to the levels called for in sequestration. But this is no substitute for the total lack of any clear goals for the future, for showing that the Department of Defense has serious plans to shape a viable mix of alliances and partnerships, force levels, deployments, modernization, personnel, and readiness over the coming Future Year Defense Plan.

And, as for partisan criticism, it will be a miracle if Republicans go beyond special interest criticism and seeking political leverage in an election year, and actually address any of the issues that really matter. The nation and our allies deserve far more by way of a plan for the future, and nothing about past QDRs indicates they will get that.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy