A story in this morning’s Politico Pro Defense newsletter (subscription required) explains where many Republican presidential contenders get their ideas about enlarging the military. According to the report by Austin Wright, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie routinely cite the findings of the 2014 National Defense Panel (NDP) when advocating increased defense spending.
But citing the NDP requires the candidates to ignore the flawed basis for its recommendations.
Congress chartered the first National Defense Panel in 1997. Its purpose is to provide an alternative view to the long-term strategy laid out in the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which the legislative branch has consistently found wanting. As Wright notes, the NDP “isn’t beholden to the White House and its budget priorities and can therefore perform the exercise that Congress intended: explaining what the U.S. Military should be doing in an ideal world unconstrained by the political realities of the moment.”
The panel’s 2014 iteration made a number of recommendations in response to what its members saw as a world of increased danger—including maintaining Army end-strength at 490,000 and Marine Corps’s end-strength at 182,000, expanding the Navy up to 346 ships, and immediately restoring the fiscal-year 2016 defense budget to the level then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recommended in 2011.
A series of articles at the international security website War on the Rocks illuminated the many problems with the 2014 NDP’s report on its release last year.
First, the NDP had no chance of concluding anything but that the defense budget must be raised. While the panel has a veneer of bipartisanship, it is stacked with hawks from both parties—including its supporting staff. Even among its outside experts, only Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center advocates lower defense spending. As Christopher Bolan of the Army War College wrote in his critique of the panel’s report:
[A]ll of these members reflect the elite intellectual consensus that American interests can only be served by the preservation of U.S. global military hegemony. Hence, their recommendation for additional investments in American military might was not a result of serious deliberation and analysis, but rather a preordained conclusion.
Stating this fact is not meant to impugn the integrity of anyone involved in the panel. Both members and staff alike might have entered deliberations with their minds open to a number of possible conclusions. But with no member or staffer having a different mindset before the panel’s work started, no one could push back against the prevailing assumptions of those in the room. All the members of the NDP are experts on defense issues, and the staffers are all smart and capable, but the panel’s “findings” were never in doubt.
The second problem with the NDP report is that identifying tradeoffs was of no concern. As mentioned, when one only needs to plan for an “ideal world,” free of realities, tradeoffs are unnecessary. But strategy requires tradeoffs. It requires priorities. As Frank Hoffman of the National Defense University writes in his takedown of the report:
Strategy, we are often reminded, is ultimately about choice, tradeoffs, and managing risks. The NDP embraced a grander strategy and openly called for the required resources to implement it, but it did not make any hard choices or offer priorities. The NDP’s blueprint reads very much like a wish list that would eliminate all risk and ignore pressing matters such as acquisition reform, streamline headquarters, and better business practices. The Congress has no clue, after reading the NDP exercise, where to spend a marginal dollar, or even a marginal billion dollars. The NDP gave the Congress the simple choice between today’s sequestration-constrained Department of Defense budget of roughly $500 billion a year, and the panel’s proposed force structure which costs roughly $100 billion more per year. That’s not as useful as a set of clear priorities. Nor did the NDP tell Congress where to shift a single dollar from DOD’s current plan. Rather, its recommendations were additive to current Pentagon plans.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is fond of saying he wants force planning that is strategy-driven not budget-driven. Former Sec. Gates once criticized proposed cuts to defense as reflecting “math and not strategy.” And NDP member Michele Flournoy has argued that it is unacceptable to say that politics will not allow a larger defense budget. But budget math and politics are inseparable from strategy. Strategists must take available resources into account. The availability of resources is a product of politics. That the NDP ignores these facts demonstrates its work is not an exercise in strategy.
But as Thomas Lynch, also of the National Defense University, wrote, in a third critique of last year’s report, that the NDP was never meant to provide a strategy. Lynch argues that Congress established the panel as a challenge to administration prerogatives laid out in the QDR. Congress gets to make the lion’s share of appointments to the NDP, so legislators interested in increasing the defense budget can stack the deck in their favor. Lynch quotes Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the Seapower Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, who said when the panel’s findings were released: “You don’t get more [bipartisan] than this panel, [and] I certainly think it gives us a lot of support for positions we’ve been advocating.”
Together, these arguments demonstrate the real problem with the panel’s report. It claims to be strategic while ignoring the requirements of strategy. Instead, it is a political document presented as apolitical because the panel’s membership is bipartisan, even though the members agreed almost entirely on the issue they examined. As naval analyst and proud defense hawk Bryan McGrath wrote when trumpeting the conclusions of the 2014 report, “It represents the CONSENSUS view of a bipartisan group of defense and national security experts.” (Emphasis in original.) And he is right: it represents the consensus view of people across the political spectrum who already believe the defense budget should be increased. But those wishing to tout its findings can wave the report around as if disinterested analysts crafted it. They can argue, as candidates are wont to do, that a bipartisan expert group diagnosed the needs of the U.S. military and that they are merely following the recommendations. The politics of the panel, and the unrealistic assumptions on which it based its recommendations, will disappear in the noise of the presidential campaign.