Strategy and Costs Gone Amuck

The Financial Times on Wednesday, September 15th posted an interview with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, with the headline “US Military Chief on the Need for Defence Cuts.” At the same time Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has taken up the cudgel against un-needed and wasteful new projects and weapons systems. Both Gates and Mullen recognize that if costs are not cut they will face deeper cuts in the years to come due to the burden that DOD expenditures are making on the discretionary budget and American debt.

Interesting to this writer is that Mullen in his interview cited the example of cuts of 20% or more by America’s key allies, like Britain and Germany. (See my earlier post on these European cuts in which I tired to highlight their significance.)

The article quotes Mullen: ” If we do not figure out how to manage ourselves inside this growing challenge [of fiscal austerity] then I do worry that it won’t be too long before those kind of cuts will be part of our future as well and would be very dangerous.” The defense budget next fiscal year will be about $567 billion excluding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Acknowledging, that the DOD budget now account for about 50% of the discretionary budget Mullen worried that “debt” was America’s biggest national security challenge. Frankly, I do not share this perspective since there are real risks beyond national debt and reasons for increased cuts beyond a budget issue.

Mullen expressed concern about abut the culture of spending in Congress. Congress has traditionally fought for added programs to help their constituents and the defense industry which provides large donations for their political campaigns. These industries also pour money into media and lobby campaigns in support of often unneeded pet projects. Mullen said in the interview that “We have to make the case to Congress [to change the way it authorizes defence budgets]. I understand that.”

The problem is that there was no acknowledgment that our strategic environment had also changed and that some of our current systems are out of line with our real priority needs. The example of the “second” engine for the F35 joint strike fighter was cited in the FT article…a system that DOD said should be cut but which Congress will likely keep.

The tail wags the dog in the defense industry as our strategic choices are influenced by the moneyed interests rather than the other way around. It is time for all to rethink both the strategy and our defense budget.

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