The Obama administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2016 includes $534 billion for the base budget of the Department of Defense, $35 billion over the Budget Control Act spending cap for 2016. The Pentagon has had over three years to prepare plans for a budget that complies with a FY2016 cap of $499 billion. It has continually to refused to do so. And this failure is even more evident looking out over the next decade and beyond.
Writing at the Daily Beast, veteran defense reporter Bill Sweetman outlines how upcoming Pentagon programs, the bills for which will come due in the mid-2020s, defy fiscal sanity. To start with, programs to upgrade U.S. nuclear force—most of which begin development now—will be due to enter service by the middle of the next decade. These include the replacement program for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), a follow-on to the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and a new nuclear cruise missile. The next-generation SSBN program is so expensive the Navy has asked Congress to exempt it from its shipbuilding budget and instead to create a defense-wide National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. While Congress did create the fund in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, no money has been appropriated yet. Still, the Air Force is expected to follow suit and request similar accounts for the LRS-B and its new ICBM.
The picture does not improve with conventional forces either. As Sweetman notes, the 2016 budget request was a preview of what program costs into the next decade will look like:
The biggest by far is $14 billion per year for production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, through 2030 and beyond. The Air Force’s Boeing KC-46 air-refueling tanker runs through the late 2020s and the Air Force seems determined to make its T-X trainer (needed to replace Northrop T-38s built in the 1960s) supersonic, agile and consequently expensive. The new Ford-class carriers continue to cost more than the Nimitz class, and the Navy plans to procure two more surface combatant classes in parallel through the 2020s.
In a report issued last year, the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies referred to just the nuclear portion of these plans as a “modernization mountain.” It is quite clear the Pentagon has no idea how it will climb this nuclear mountain, much less its conventional mountain.
And those are not the only mountains the Pentagon faces. In November, shortly before his resignation, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced a “Third Offset” strategy to “gain a robust technological advantage over threats of the 2020s and beyond.” As Sweetman writes, “nobody knows how much the Third Offset technologies and systems will cost because nobody knows what they are.” What is clear already is that the Pentagon believes simply throwing money at the offset strategy is a good place to start, with $12 billion dedicated to the effort in the FY2016 budget request.
It is fashionable among defense hawks to argue that defense budgets should be based on strategy, as if budgets and strategy are not inextricably intertwined. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain is particularly fond of this line of thinking, stating before taking the gavel on SASC, “We’re going to have to try to arrange a series of hearing so that we can have a strategy that drives the budget instead of a budget that drives the strategy.” The Cato Institute’s Benjamin Friedman sums up nicely why the senator’s statement makes zero sense:
Strategy is the prioritization of goals by assignment of resources. Hawks, like Senator John McCain, occasionally insist otherwise and call for military strategy’s liberation from budgetary constraints. But that is like suggesting that aircraft designs ignore physics. Strategy lacks meaning without budgetary context.
Having a strategy is important. Goals have to be brought in line with the resources available to pursue them. The coming fiscal nightmare at the Department of Defense demonstrates that defense leaders have made plans with zero relation to strategy. Sweetman’s opening sentence describes perfectly how the Department of Defense has approached its future planning: “If the Pentagon was a family, the parents would be buying new cars every other year and eating out three times a week while blithely planning to put all five kids through Harvard.”