Seize the High Ground

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Obama administration is leaning toward several mistakes in defense policy. In the interest of bipartisanship, here is some free advice from the opposing dugout as we move from spring training into the season:

Don’t let the military set the budget. There are places where a president should be deferential to military judgment, but spending isn’t one of them. Even excluding the $190 billion in war supplemental spending for fiscal 2008, American defense spending is the world’s highest by a factor of five; our $625 billion 2008 budget accounts for nearly half the world’s total.

Our defense establishment is not particularly cost-effective, either in the strategies we develop or in its operations. Given the competing demands in your budget, you should hold it to a higher standard. For example, instead of keeping to the established service slices in the budget, open mission areas up to competition and let money follow innovation and bang for the buck.

Constraining spending will require accepting risk. But no president has been able to afford a defense establishment without risk, and the breadth of American power permits us to accept some more now. The U.S. military is battle hardened and well equipped. I would recommend having your Defense Department team run the Quadrennial Defense Review with three different potential outcomes: vary the top-line budget by $50 billion per year and see how they adapt the program. That will demonstrate where the most important trade-offs lie.

Make sure you get unvarnished military advice. And not just from the uniforms you agree with. Especially if you tighten up defense spending, you will need a vigorous debate about how to attenuate risks. Your best bet is people who excel at the central tasks of the profession, even if they are not politically savvy or comfortable to deal with.

Carry through on your promises. You committed to increase the size of the military by 90,000; the sticker price for the people alone (not equipment) will be $1.2 billion a year for every 10,000 soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel, or Marines. You may think that if you draw Iraq to a quick close and don’t plan to get involved elsewhere, you won’t have to go through with the costly increase. But the military is undersized for the strategy we are attempting to carry out: the Clinton administration cut the size of the force, and the Bush administration expanded the demands in the strategy.

And you can’t raise an army when you need it. Our military has been shouldering the burden of these wars when few other Americans have been contributing. Keep faith with them and their families that fewer deployments and longer rest, education, and training periods are coming. It will keep the most talented of them in the force, and that’s the military you need.

Our nuclear deterrent needs attention. And not just from an arms-control perspective, either. The numbers are too large and the warheads’ reliability will come into question; thus a bargain of modernization coupled with significant reductions deserves consideration, even though it requires a limited period of nuclear testing.

The procurement system is broken. It’s complicated and politically fraught to address, but it needs fixing. Washington is awash in recommendations for defense reforms; the problem is not lack of good ideas but lack of political attention to push through basic changes that will recombine responsibility for determining "requirements" and paying the price tag.

Whatever you think of "don’t ask, don’t tell," don’t change it right away. What the commander in chief does early in his administration telegraphs his priorities, and telling a military that has been at war for seven years that the most important thing you know about it is its policy on homosexuality will be resented, especially if you’re not going to take their advice about the Iraq time line.

Take their advice about the Iraq time line. Winning the war matters for stabilizing Iraq, containing Iran, shaping expectations of allies and enemies alike, and respecting the sacrifices our military has made while fighting it. Losing wars cast long shadows. How you end it will affect the futures market in American power. Given strains on the force, there is a natural friction between the combatant commanders’ desire to achieve a suitable end state and the Joint Chiefs’ desire to preserve and rebuild the force. That friction will already have constrained the time line.

Separately, but vitally: bring the other elements of national power—that is, the rest of the government—up to the military’s standard of performance. It is an $80 billion a year proposition to recruit, train, and equip State, USAID, Treasury, Trade, Agriculture, Education, and other departments to be genuine peers of the Department of Defense. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for better contributions from other national security departments. Constraints on the budget may force you to test the depth of his commitment by shifting money from Defense to other departments to improve them.