Funding Hard Power
The world has grown increasingly dangerous. Whereas the world was moving toward greater degrees of integration, by the dawn of the 21st century, these trends have slowly started to reverse. Now, between the Global War on Terror, the rise of China, the resurgence of Russian nationalism, and the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, the world is fragmented and the global order is chaotic.
The rise of Right-Wing alternative parties in places like Europe, and the increasing popularity of Alternative Right-Wing populism in the United States today indicates that there will be further strain placed upon the process of globalization from within the very states that once championed it. What’s more, budgetary shortfalls have consumed the U.S. government, and the deficit has exploded to $20 trillion (and is rising). This is to say nothing of the precipitous decline in global fertility rates–particularly in the Western world.
Therefore, at a time when the country (and its allies) is in dire need of the deterrent and reassurance capabilities of a robust U.S. military, political and economic forces are conspiring to prevent such capabilities from being developed and deployed. This article will build off of the arguments of my recent article, “Deter & Reassure: America’s Best Defense Strategy,” and elaborate how the U.S. can actually fund such a strategy in an age of constrained defense budgets–without blowing up the already outsized deficit.
Reforming America’s Defense Budget
Whenever one talks about the U.S. defense budget, one is invariably chided that the U.S. spends more on defense than the next five countries combined. Yet, comparing what America spends its defense dollars on with what other states, like China or Russia, spend their (more limited) defense money on is a fallacious red herring. Indeed, the U.S. defense budget is massive. However, you must ask: how much of that massive defense budget is spent on actual warfighting capabilities? How much of it is spent on systems that American forces really need to successfully wage today’s wars? Compare those numbers to what we know about Chinese and Russian defense budgets.
What’s more, look at the strategies these rivals are developing to counteract the perceived American superiority on the battlefield. It’s quite frightening. You soon find that, while the U.S. defense budget is large, it is also quite bloated–and mismanaged. While the actual warfighting capabilities of the U.S. military are poorly funded, as are the defense programs needed to supply them with necessary equipment, the budget for a largely redundant civilian workforce and a broken procurement process remains large.
The U.S. does spend entirely too much on its defense. The defense budget–hell, the entire federal budgeting process–needs a complete overhaul (I saw the budget madness firsthand when I served on The Hill). Despite the amount of money spent on the defense budget, and irrespective of whether the Sequestration was bound to happen or not, the fact is that the amount of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that America has spent on its defense has dropped significantly since the early Cold War.
Under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the Kennedy Administration, for instance, defense spending was at 10% GDP. By 2015, however, under Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, U.S. defense spending was under 3%. At the most recent spike in defense spending, during the George W. Bush Administration following 9/11, the defense budget barely got to 4% of GDP.
Look at it this way, whereas in 2014, the U.S. spent $1.4 trillion on the combined budgets of Medicare ($603 billion) and Social Security ($845 billion), the U.S. spent $520 billion on defense in FY2014. That number is falling for the defense, by the way, whereas projections place Social Security’s budget increasing a whopping 77% and Medicare’s increasing 72% over the next ten years.
Are we investing in our future?
Even still, there remain calls from deficit hawks on the Right and peaceniks on the Left in Congress to reduce America’s defense budget further. Not too long ago former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) actually called for the dismemberment of the Department of Defense and its reorganization into something known as the Department of Peace. I wouldn’t mention it, save for the fact that it came from Nancy Pelosi and not a more radical member of the House like, say, Alan Grayson (D-FL), who is most famous for standing on the House Floor and claiming that Republicans wanted the elderly to die. On the other end of the spectrum, people like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) have convinced themselves that the U.S. simply cannot afford its military any longer.
They believe that the U.S. must disestablish its global presence, bring the troops home, and hunker down in fortress America, leaving the rest of the world to sort itself out. Not to sound too trite, but we have tried that kind of thinking before…it was called the America First Movement and it ended in failure when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Concurrently, men like Republican Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who seem to endorse a blind budget of all things military (including arming Syrian rebels, many of whom may be linked with al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other Jihadist groups), completely miss the mark. People like Senator McCain may have the best intentions with their unquestioning support of an increased defense budget, yet, such a policy is unrealistic. These recommendations simply go too far.
A new paradigm is needed in defense budgeting.
Even with the defense budget consuming smaller and smaller amounts of the GDP, I too, believe that the military’s budget can be reduced. But, in order to determine how and where the cuts should be made, significant reforms in the defense budget must first be enacted. Blindly cutting the military’s funds, as Sequestration has done, will not help to alleviate America’s economic woes.
Rather, it will only exacerbate its national security dilemmas, by blindly cutting military programs that may, in fact, hold the key to America’s safety and continued dominance in the world. Furthermore, by ridding the military of its more seasoned troops, the institutions lose all of those members’ experience. This is what’s known as Institutional Memory and it is vital for any organization, especially one tasked with national security.
I once heard a friend of mine who works at the Pentagon make the comment that the Department of Defense (DoD) has become “nothing more than a federal jobs program.” Indeed, there is a disturbing reality to this. The Defense Department is a massive bureaucracy. It is not only home to the four branches of the military, but it is also a major federal employer–employing both civilian government workers as well as civilian contractors. While one could make the argument that some of these positions are necessary for the global mission of the U.S. military (and they undoubtedly are), there can be little doubt that a great many of these jobs are unnecessary.
They are the result of lax budgetary oversight and sloppy planning on the part of the DoD’s management. Indeed, at a time when the uniformed military services are undergoing their most drastic personnel cuts in years (which former Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has described as catastrophic), the civilian workforce at the Pentagon has grown by a rate of 13% each year. According to some estimates, the amount of civilian Air Force employees may soon match the number of uniformed personnel in the Air Force National Guard and Reserves! Do we really need all of these civilian federal employees in the DoD? I mean, how many human resources managers can you take into battle with you?
In 2013, the Congressional Budgetary Office (CBO) estimated that entirely two-thirds of the Defense Department’s Operations and Management budget from 2013-2021 will have been consumed by the rising costs of its bloated civilian workforce (you can see its most recent measure in the graph above).
Read that again.
Think about it this way: in FY2015, the DoD requested $199.2 billion for its Total Obligational Authority (TOA), which is also the Operations and Management (O&M) budget (mind you, this was already $3.9 billion higher than FY2014’s original baseline TOA budget of $195.3 billion), and over the next six years, it’s projected that the $199.2 billion will be devoured increasingly by the O&M needs of a largely unnecessary civilian workforce! How much money could we be saving from just making rational cuts here? Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is required to slash many more of its divisions, even in the face of growing ground threats abroad.
What is going on here?
Even if the DoD were to wake up tomorrow and get serious about reining in its excessive civilian workforce, it would still have to contend with the fact that the DoD management has no real way of figuring out what civilian jobs they need, and which ones they do not need.
In a truly stunning turn of events during a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) briefing in 2013, it was determined that the Pentagon manpower estimate reports, which the Pentagon uses to match the skills of its civilian workers with jobs it needs completed, is broken.
The matching system does not work. What’s more, the reports are generalized, meaning that managers cannot determine who they need to hire, let alone, fire.
Plus, everyone knows that if a serious attempt were made to pare down the civilian workforce at the DoD, there would be considerable pushback and political fallout. After all, how would politicians respond if a federal program that provided for 800,000 people were suddenly downsized or cut? Remember the terrors of Welfare Reform in the 1990s? Imagine that, times twenty. Once a bureaucracy is created, terminating–or even diminishing–it becomes an impossibility.
Of course, even if the federal civilian workforce downsize were to occur–even if it were done properly–these reforms would likely just pave the way for the increase in civilian contractors. In and of themselves, civilian contractors are a fine solution to a budgetary problem. Except there’s one problem: they have virtually no oversight. Once a company receives a contract from the government, it is not subject to the same kinds of oversight mechanisms that a federal bureaucrat is supposed to be subjected to.
What’s more, the contracts tend to be extremely short-term (compared to the cosmically long life that a civilian government employee can have in the DoD), meaning that key competencies–things necessary for retaining institutional memory–are likely to be lost. Therefore, whatever cuts and changes to the civilian workforce are implemented will have to be carefully balanced with this fact in mind. Still, reforms are necessary and, if done smartly, can reduce the defense costs on American taxpayers.
Former Marine Corps Major General Arnold Punaro on the Pentagon’s Procurement process: “Spend more, take longer and get less.”
The next issue that must be reformed is the Pentagon’s procurement process. Here is a truly broken and, likely corrupt, relic from the earliest Cold War days. When President Eisenhower warned of the excesses that a permanent Military-Industrial Complex would be possessed of in his Farewell Address, this is likely what he meant. The Procurement Process, or Acquisitions, is a Pentagonese way of basically saying, “How we buy stuff.” This affects everything from the way that the military buys new fighter jets, to the way that it buys office supplies. In either event, the process is long, the bureaucracy is bloated, and the methods are highly ineffective. For the purposes of this conversation, we’re going to stick to the way that the Pentagon procures its weapons and warfighting equipment.
I want you to think about the creation of Apple’s iPad. When it was created, it had no reason to exist. It was neither a phone nor a computer. It was designed to be something else entirely. Yet, most people did not even know they wanted, or needed, them. However, Steve Jobs and his crackerjack team at Apple figured out not only how to create this awesome device, but how to generate massive demand for it.
This miracle of technology was created and sold, not to the elite, but to everyone. It was assumed that most could afford this newfangled device. Why? Well, as that commercial once sang, “that’s logistics.” Apple had created a global supply chain that acquired the methods and means to produce and ship the iPad–at extremely low cost to the company–that allowed Apple to sell it to ordinary folks. When the iPad was invented, not only did no one know that they needed it, but Apple did not even have the requisite materials to make the machine work properly!
They had to spend billions of dollars and countless hours developing key systems for the machine. While Steve Jobs is reported to have thought of the iPad, in theory, as early as 1983, he did not really focus on its creation until around 2007, when the first iPhones were generating a great amount of interest. From that point onward until January of 2010, when the first generation iPad was released, it took about 3 years to design, produce, and sell those first iPads to the general public.
This is not the case with the Pentagon’s development and deployment of its weapons of war.
In today’s Information Age, the kind of warfighting systems that the U.S. military depends on are increasingly complex and interconnected. Indeed, the entire American style of warfare is predicated on the kind of speed and interoperability between its soldiers, Marines, sailors, and Airmen and its machines. This is called “jointness.”
Integrated warfare, the merging of metal and men ready for rapid deployment and quick victory, is the way that America fights–and wins–its wars. This has allowed the U.S. to create an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) that ensures only the best and most able young men and women willingly join the armed forces and protect this country. Yet, without the informational and technological advantages of integrated warfighting, the U.S. would be terribly outnumbered in combat. Therefore, the U.S. must fund the development of and field advanced technologies alongside its warfighters.
However, the Pentagon has complicated this already difficult task with an oversized and inefficient bureaucracy, onerous regulations imposed by Congress, and an inefficient reliance on but a handful of companies (i.e. Lockheed Martin, Northrup-Gruman, and the like) to provide for their needs.
These companies are so enmeshed in the Pentagon process that they have begun to exhibit the worst inefficiencies of most State Owned Enterprises: they cost a lot of money, lose a lot of taxpayer dollars, and they are slow to release their product. As time progresses, the technology that is meant to help our warfighters ends up taking so long to field that they are obsolete.
Or, when they are deployed into combat zones, they either don’t work properly or there aren’t enough of them to make much of a difference. Meanwhile, significant gaps are formed in America’s defenses.
Take the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), for instance. The F-35 was designed to be the next-generation replacement for the A-10 Warthog, F-16, and F-18 fighters. The Air Force not only wanted it, but so too did the Navy and the Marine Corps. Furthermore, an additional 13 allied states were brought in to assist in the development of this program. Despite these developments, the F-35 has suffered grotesque cost overruns, terrible technical glitches, and disastrous showings when deployed.
Also, the plane’s full deployment has been postponed to such a degree that many now believe America’s fighter fleet has significant strategic gaps in it that will be difficult to plug in the short-term.
This, at a time when rivals like China and Russia are intensifying their own Fifth Generation warplane development. Plus, the increased complexity of planes like the F-35 mean that, while they can do more than the average Fourth Generation fighter, it requires greater skill in piloting (meaning more money to train pilots) and, if they are damaged or lost in battle, the planes will be difficult to replace, due to their higher cost of production.
Systems like this will always be costlier than the ones that preceded them. Yet, I believe, the procurement process has been so bloated by glut and inefficiency that much of the delays and cost overruns are because of the procurement process itself. Some simple actions can be taken to reduce this bureaucratic friction.
First, the U.S. needs to open up its procurement process to start-up companies and small-to-medium-sized specialty businesses. Right now, it depends on a handful of major defense contracting firms to develop, produce, and field their defense and weapons systems.
A great example is in my area of national security space policy. As I argue in my Space Dominance lecture series, the way that military satellites (and related space systems) are developed is an expensive–and ongoing–disaster.
Just look at the way that the Department of Defense (DoD) launches satellites. In the 1980s, the Air Force implemented the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). This was designed to cut back on the extreme costs to space launches for the military. The goal was to create a procurement process that hewed much closer to the private sector’s way of procuring things for producing products.
The end result was the creation of an ironclad, monopolistic entity that operated in much the same way that a Chinese Communist Party-owned State Owned Enterprise operates. The EELV ended in failure, it ended in executives being indicted, and the two companies–Boeing and Lockheed Martin–sued each other. Ultimately, however, they merged to form the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
The two corporations created a system for launching our military satellites into orbit that did just the opposite of what the original EELV program intended. Today, Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation shares some of the burden of launching America’s military satellites into orbit. However, this was done at significant cost to Mr. Musk, and only came about when SpaceX initiated a lawsuit against the Air Force and the ULA. The suit was subsequently dropped, when the Air Force decided to allow SpaceX to place competitive bids on launch contracts. This was a huge step for a company that was not a part of the preexisting Military-Industrial apparatus–the so-called Iron Triangle.
“If you’re a startup, you almost certainly won’t get a chance to sell your product or service to the US government.” – Taylor Lincoln, Director of the Congress Watch division of Public Citizen, a national non-profit consumer advocacy organization.
Yet, the stress to the company and the costs involved in just being able to bid against these quasi-State Owned Enterprises, such as Lockheed or Boeing, was great. A small, start-up company with a less famous CEO, doesn’t stand a chance of breaking into the bureaucratic firewall that the is DoD procurement process. The cost and risk to the company, let alone the hurdles that the company will have to jump through once it is able to compete against the small number of giants that comprise the world of federal contractors, does not warrant an investment.
What’s more, the sheer size, scope, and reach of the major federal defense contractors means that they have the capability to permanently lobby Congress for contracts. As the Public Citizen report indicates, even when government tries to honor its commitment to ensuring fair treatment of Small Businesses in the contract awarding process, very often, it is subsidiaries related to the major federal contractors who win contracts.
What’s more, just to add a bow atop this gift horse, in conjunction with their massive lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, the major defense contractors are the primary source of jobs for retiring military officers and, in many cases, out-of-work Congressmen and Senators. Thus, between endless campaign contributions and promises of cushy, post-government service careers, how else can a start-up company compete in, let alone just break into, the cumbersome Procurement Process? At this point in time, few can.
This kind of operating procedure cannot be tolerated in a republic such as ours. In the Pentagon’s Procurement Process, inefficiency is prized, cost overruns accepted, and cronyism essential. This is why the United States cannot build a simple fighter jet to replace its current aging fleet. It is why, of the new F-22 Raptors, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the government’s order of the amazing, yet costly Fifth-Generation Fighter.
Given the hundreds of billions of dollars–and decades of R&D–the F-22 order reached barely one-third of what it was supposed to be. Former Secretary Gates claimed that he favored the F-35 over the F-22, yet, as evidenced above, this was an even more absurd claim, given the consistent failure of the F-35.
The pitfalls of this Procurement Process has never been more widely felt until today. At a time when threats are multiplying, budgets are becoming increasingly restrained, and American willingness to intervene abroad is reduced, the U.S. military needs to be far fiercer than it has ever been before and needs to be so with fewer resources at its disposal. What few resources it does have at its disposal should be the greatest force multipliers that the world has ever seen.
Unfortunately, however, the Procurement Process has become so unwieldy that whatever it does manage to produce ends up being done so over a protracted period of time (thereby reducing the usefulness of the system in question), at such great cost that only limited numbers of the system are produced, and is so complex that it takes twice as long to train the servicemen and women of the armed forces how to use it.
The last area of the Procurement Process that needs to be addressed is the Congressional oversight system. As I touched upon above, Congress has a dubious relationship with the federal defense contractors that it is supposed to be overseeing. Very often, the major federal contractors have the resources to deploy armies of lobbyists to coax, cajole, and entice Congressmen and Senators into serving their corporate interests.
As we have seen, this skews the process away from what should be a straightforward process of creating efficiencies and lowering costs to the taxpayers and toward a truly stifling system of cronyism. On top of all of this, America’s legislators have a decades-long proclivity of shaking these federal contractors down in the form of where the contracts will be fulfilled.
For instance, when then-Senator John F. Kennedy was preparing his 1960 Presidential Bid, he used his position as a legislator to get Bell Helicopters to base a portion of their production arm in his home state (and other presidential swing states), thereby employing many of then-Senator Kennedy’s constituents, as well as voters in pivotal states, in turn, earning him their undying gratitude, which he planned to use for his benefit in what was then the Presidential Election of 1960. This kind of thing continues today, and both Democrats and Republicans are in on it. This by no means to say that every one of them are a part of this vicious cycle, but enough are that it perverts the entire system.
How do we fix this?
Well, trying to untether the desire for political gain from Congress would be like trying to teach a fish to stop swimming. Furthermore, the Legislative Branch has a constitutionally-mandated oversight authority which extends to the Pentagon’s Procurement Process. So, my recommendation would be to split the difference. Congress cannot (and will not) give up its oversight authority. However, it could reform its own system to allow for the creation of a Congressionally-appointed independent oversight board.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are too close to the process and, through lobbying, is unable to maintain objectivity on the issue of oversight. While it cannot abdicate from its oversight role, it must become far more impartial, if the Procurement Process stands any hope of being reformed.
This independent oversight board can be roughly modeled after the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and will function to reduce costs and increase efficiency at the Pentagon. This is possible. We can do this. But it will require institutional reform, of both the Pentagon and Congress, that may be impossible. However, this is the only solution that thus far I can determine (I say this as a former Congressional staffer).
The closed Procurement Process must be fully opened up to the private sector. We cannot afford to have Crony Capitalist enterprises driving our national defense establishment. This not only corrupts the way of building and maintaining the most advanced military in the world, but it also serves as a corrosive agent to the foundation of our republic. It tears the republic apart by encouraging corruption from our lawmakers, weakness from our military, and unaccountability from our entire government.
In such an environment, the best interests of the citizen cannot possibly be served. These are but a few major reforms needed to help build a more efficient Department of Defense, thereby paving the way for a cost-effective and realistic method of building America’s besieged Hard Power capabilities.
Hooray for Hard Power
In this period of global fragmentation, when threats are on the rise and the hope for peace is fleeting, the one, sure thing that can remedy these negative trends is overwhelming U.S. military power. This power, however, has been waning for decades. The military we have now is being asked to do more with less. This is a terrible way of conducting America’s foreign policy. What’s more, it’s a disgusting thing to do to our nation’s young men and women who decide to forego more lucrative careers in order to answer the call of duty.
As I documented in “Deter & Reassure: America’s Best Defense Strategy,” President Obama and the Democrats entered into power in 2008 on the basis that they were going to enhance America’s Soft Power at the expense of its more traditional Hard, or coercive, Power. After eight years of this policy, the results have been laid bare for all to see: we are living in a more dangerous time today than we were when President Obama took office in 2009.
The country has tried the Obama Administration’s New Look, as it were, at U.S. foreign policy. For eight years, President Obama tried to turn strategic enemies into friends, and friends into orphans. It has yielded a more aggressive China, a more assertive Russia, a more dangerous Iran, and more powerful Jihadist groups, like the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, as never before. The Soft Power approach to American foreign policy; the dualistic policy prescription of cooperation and accommodation is not working for the United States.
Therefore, a new strategy of deterrence and reassurance is needed. However, in order to accomplish this goal, the United States needs to significantly beef up its Hard Power–primarily its military assets–to craft a believable deterrent. If it cannot seriously enhance the capabilities and size of its armed forces, then it will be unable to pursue the necessary strategy of deterrence and reassurance.
If it cannot employ such a strategy, as I have stated elsewhere, then the stability that the world enjoyed in the 1990s–and the world order that the U.S. led then–can never be restored. For now, the U.S. just needs to worry about preventing any more losses in the international arena. As such, it needs to fund its Hard Power capabilities.
Yet, the critics of such an approach are right in one regard: as it stands, this policy is far too expensive than what most Americans would likely support. At a time when the economy has been sputtering along ever since the Great Recession of 2008, the current method for budgeting America’s defense will simply not do.
Despite this, a plan to blindly cut defense spending or to embrace either a Libertarian, quasi-isolationist foreign policy, or to continue the current feckless foreign policy, would be the death knell for American national security. Therefore, before a believable strategy of deterrence and reassurance can be embraced, the reforms to the defense budget that enumerated above must be enacted.
The United States must figure out ways to lower the costs and increase the efficiency of its Military-Industrial Complex. If it can do this, it can seriously deter its foes and reassure its friends. And, if the U.S. can deter and reassure in an economically sustainable way, then it can most definitely reintroduce much-needed stability into the world order. That is how you budget for Hard Power.