As discussed earlier this week, the Pentagon’s planning system has a problematic dependence on predictability. While this dependence creates a number of perverse incentives, it exists nonetheless. And as Jonathan Rue recently noted in his essay for World Politics Review, the spending limits established by the 2011 Budget Control Act are nothing if not predictable. Unfortunately, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno seems determined to ignore that fact.
Michelle Tan, a staff writer for Army Times, quoted General Odierno yesterday bemoaning recent reductions in the Army’s budget. “We have no predictability at all… The lack of predictability is killing us,” the Army Chief of Staff stated, “I believe that where we are now is about as low as we can go… If we continue to go lower, we’re going to have to say we cannot do all the things we’re doing today”
There are a number of problems with this statement.
First, there is little unpredictable about the defense budget. Yes, the Army’s budget has decreased substantially from its peak of $283 billion (including war funding) in fiscal year 2008. But such a decrease is to be expected as the country drew down from two land wars requiring considerable manpower for counterinsurgency operations. Moreover, the legislatively mandated defense budget reductions that started in 2011 are laid out clearly in the Budget Control Act, so it was never any secret that the Army would feel the effect of those reductions. The service had time to adjust its plans accordingly but, like the rest of the Department of Defense, it ignored that opportunity.
To be fair to Odierno, the predictability of the Budget Control Act spending limits for the Pentagon’s budget as a whole say little about how those funds will be allocated among the services. And the Army’s reduction in funding has been more precipitous than that of either the Air Force or the Navy. The military services have long followed an unspoken rule that each would receive a roughly equivalent share of the defense budget. That tradition has begun to change in recent years, with the Army receiving 23 percent of the Obama administration’s 2016 defense budget request, as compared to the Air Force’s 30 percent and the Navy’s 28 percent. However, such a shift is hardly surprising given the changing budget dynamics and transition from counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to a focus on the maritime domain in the Pacific.
The shift in focus from the Middle East to the Pacific raises another problem with Odierno’s statement. The Army should embrace the idea that it “cannot do all the things [it’s] doing today” with the likely manpower reductions that the Army will experience over the next several years—with a projected end-strength of 440,000 by 2019. Roles and missions are not sacrosanct. A certain amount of “creative destruction” comes with budget reductions. If the Army wants to maintain the missions it has today, it needs to find more cost effective ways to do them. There is some evidence that the Army has begun to re-conceptualize itself for the shift to the Pacific, but if it wants to remain viable for a broad range of missions, Odierno’s successor will need to do more than just complain about reductions in funding that were entirely predictable.