5 lessons for the Pentagon from 2013

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Article Highlights

  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey asked Congress this year: "What do you want your military to do?"

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  • Sequestration's slow burn will continue, even with the recent budget deal.

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  • Hagel offers only a glimpse of the grim choices ahead for the Pentagon.

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  • Policymakers will continue to punt on serious bureaucratic reform at the Defense Department.

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey asked Congress this year: "What do you want your military to do?"

The takeaway for defense leaders is that policymakers want to fund a defense budget that does less but a military that is just as engaged around the world, ready to act when needed and fully capable when ordered to fight and win.

1.  Sequestration's slow burn will continue, even with the recent budget deal

While the recent budget deal signed into law will soften the blow of sequestration's steep cuts in fiscal year 2014, it does not do away with them altogether. As predicted, policymakers opted for defense cuts that decline in a graduated, staircase manner rather than off a cliff.

But the defense budget will still fall over the next decade. The budget simply gives Pentagon leaders more time to make judicious decisions about tradeoffs.

The "fix" to the military's portion of sequestration's bill in 2014 will surely cause many policymakers to pat themselves on the back for saving the Pentagon. But the additional infusion of cash as part of the deal should really highlight how steep the defense budget cuts were that the president proposed and Congress approved over the past four years, long before the ax of sequestration fell. These challenges are not going away.

2. Hagel offers only a glimpse of the grim choices ahead for the Pentagon

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel should be applauded for making public the results of his Strategic Choices and Management Review earlier this year. The effort examined in detail the impacts of sequestration on the Department of Defense.

But the review is just a start, because the Pentagon budget squeeze goes beyond sequestration to include unrealized efficiency initiative savings, a decline in war spending, using overseas contingency money to pay some readiness bills and a continuous rejection by Congress of proposals to shed excess infrastructure and modestly increase cost-sharing of some benefits.

Pentagon leaders will not only need a blueprint to enact many, if not most, of the review's results, but even more must be done to reduce the size of the civilian workforce, close bases and reform compensation.

3. Policymakers will continue to punt on serious bureaucratic reform at the Defense Department

As the buying power of the defense dollar continues to decline, Congress has continued to resist efforts to rein in massive Pentagon overhead. This only exacerbates the defense budget squeeze as internal cost growth goes unchecked.

The Defense Department's budget is not shrinking in the same ways as previous drawdowns. The surging costs of bureaucratic overhead, an over-burdened weapons buying process, excess bases, a growing civilian workforce and the compensation packages for DoD personnel are poised to "hollow out" the military from within as Clark Murdock at CSIS has argued.

Until Washington gets serious about reform at the Pentagon, unaddressed imbalances in the defense budget will continue to sacrifice much-needed combat power.

4. Loss of traditional defense coalition on Capitol Hill will continue to hurt

While the bipartisan pro-defense coalition has been dwindling for years in Congress, many defense leaders at the Pentagon are only just now waking up to this new and unfortunate reality. Worse, this reliable group of informed members of Congress -- who took great interest in and care of national security -- is not returning anytime soon.

This means more deals like the Budget Control Act that proposed sequestration fall disproportionately hardest on the U.S. military are possible going forward. These favored solutions to tap the defense budget for savings will continue to be attractive to politicians as America's interest payments on the debt burden grow substantially in the coming years alongside unbridled growth in the major entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Thankfully, bipartisanship is not completely dead in Washington. Leading think tanks have all joined together to urge policymakers to move quickly on difficult but long overdue reforms at the Defense Department.

5. Mission relief is not coming for the U.S. military as budgets fall

Defense policy is subordinate to America's foreign policy. Yet even as U.S. forces exit Afghanistan and all troops have left Iraq, the demands upon those in uniform are not letting up.

That is because the substantial daily presence and peacetime requirements of the U.S. military are not going away. Indeed, they have been growing the past year alongside rising instability in key regions of the world. Navy ships are being prepped to assist with destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Troops have been sent to Jordan to bolster its military capacity as a check on Syrian volatility. Forces have been deployed to South Sudan, Mali and Libya in recent months for a variety of missions from evacuation to aerial refueling to capturing Joseph Kony. Fighters and bombers flew over the Korean peninsula in a show of force. Military personnel have assisted with numerous humanitarian disasters around the world, including the Philippines. Even the Coast Guard has picked up new missions in the Arctic and cyber operations.

Navy Admiral Thomas Moore said it best when highlighting the unrelenting demand on U.S. forces: "We have an eleven-carrier Navy for a world that needs fifteen." This supply-demand disconnect applies across the armed forces. Policymakers want to cash in a "peace dividend" from a military operating in a world in which America's "unipolar moment" is over, according to the Director of National Intelligence.

Washington's appetite for hard power capabilities is not shrinking. "Do ever more with less" is, unfortunately, the only expectation the Joint Chiefs should harbor as they seek to manage a smaller force for the future.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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