By Mark Thompson
The Pentagon unveiled its proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, and elected to seek $52 billion – about 10% — more than it is going to be allowed to spend under current law.
The decision to seek the extra funding is a political act, championed by President Obama and endorsed by his new defense secretary, Chuck Hagel. Gamblers call it betting on the come.
The proposed Pentagon budget punts on all the tough decisions, suggesting a department still groggy from its post-9/11 binge.
What’s distressing is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the officers charged with making sure they have the tools they believe they need to defend the nation (think of them as Martin [You’re-No-Jack] Dempsey, Roy Ordinary, Jonathan Greenert-Behind-the-Ears, Jim Amos-and-Andy, and Mark Welsh), went along with the charade.
The nation’s military forces and defense contractors have been paralyzed for more than a year by the uncertainty posed by the threat of sequestration. Then-defense secretary Leon Panetta told them it would be a “doomsday” option, wasn’t going to happen, and not to bother planning for it. When it did, he went MIA.
Now, the Joint Chiefs – the guys in uniform, not the weathervane civilians – have agreed to continue to hope that a budget deal will be struck that will give them the $526.6 billion they asked for Wednesday, and not the roughly $475 billion they’re slated to get under the Budget Control Act of 2011. “The FY ’14 defense budget does not reflect the full sequestration amount,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, acknowledged. “However…it does impose less reduction and give us more time.”
Pentagon civilians were similarly forthright. “The fiscal ’14 number does not take into account what could be a $52 billion reduction if the Budget Control Act remains unchanged,” Robert Hale, the Defense Department comptroller, said.
Might you have to, he was asked?
“Oh, my goodness,” he responded. “I know I — I know my hopes – it’s to definitely avoid it. I can’t rule it out, but I can’t put a percentage on it either…I don’t want to say that we’re not going to get this. I sure hope so.”
Most senior officers shy away from the use of the word “hope,” the invasion of Iraq nonwithstanding. The good ones refuse to make it a part of their rucksack.
Defense-watchers from both side of the political spectrum were skeptical. “By continuing to ignore the law of the land –- and however lousy that may be, that’s what the Budget Control Act is — the President is doing greater damage than is necessary to the military,” says Mackenzie Eaglen of the Republican-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “President Obama’s 2014 defense budget is a recipe for continued uncertainty, additional budget cuts, an ultimately reduced strategy, and inability to safely and smartly plan for the long-term.”
“The United States is at risk of over-promising and under-delivering on its global security ambitions,” adds Travis Sharp of the Democratic-tilting Center for a New American Security. “DOD’s intense rhetoric about the `catastrophic’ consequences of sequestration appeared excessive to many members of Congress — and the public — and harmed the Pentagon’s credibility.”
Since sequestration first raised its ugly head in 2011, senior U.S. military leaders have been resolute in their conviction that they prefer a smaller, but ready, military force to a bigger, but less-ready, one. But by continuing to pretend they’re going to get money they’re unlikely ever to see, they’re postponing the inevitable day of reckoning when the U.S. military is forced to calibrate its capabilities to the available cash. The bottom line: a less-ready military.
“It is illusory budgeting, in my view,” says Gordon Adams, who oversaw the Pentagon’s accounts from the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration. “But the chiefs are living in the same mythical world the secretary’s office and OMB are still inhabiting.”
Not everyone sees it that way. “These are decisions for civilian politicians to make,” says AEI’s defense expert Thomas Donnelly. “We do not want another revolt of the admirals nor generals.”
But it certainly would have gotten the nation’s attention.
The chiefs had an easy choice here.
Each had to decide if he could perform his Title 10 responsibilities – to man, train and equip his service with the funds for 2014 currently available under U.S. law.
If so, he should have offered to resign rather than participate in a political stunt by signing onto a budget request inconsistent with that law.
It would have given their political masters something to think about if one, two or three of them said they were not going to engage in such chicanery.
And if the lower level of funding permitted under current law was insufficient to fulfill their Title 10 responsibilities, they should have offered to resign for that reason.
Actions speak louder than words. The chiefs – by their inaction – spoke loudly on Wednesday.