Crickets for the U.S. Defense Report Card

August 27, 2014

Do you hear the crickets? A blue ribbon panel in Washington recently published a major report on U.S. security challenges — with little fanfare from the media. The National Defense Panel (NDP), co-chaired by two respected leaders, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired General John Abizaid, was tasked with providing an independent assessment of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The august body of major players, including two former Under Secretaries of Defense for Policy, and numerous generals, panned the QDR strategy as well as its proposed force structure and risk assessment.

Normally, a congressionally sponsored commission making critical comments about the administration would get some attention from the mainstream media. Thanks to the doldrums of August, the report did not get the attention it merits. But the quiet reception may also reflect the interested public’s take on a document that satisfied every possible demand for more defense spending but offered little in terms of tradeoffs or priorities. The result was an unconstrained strategy that reads like a lengthy and expensive shopping list, everything the Pentagon would want.

Strategic Assessment

The panel’s report, Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future, offers constructive criticisms about Pentagon strategy and long-term budget requirements. It embraced the basic strategy underlying the QDR but not the constrained resources allotted to it, arguing that “we must emphasize that America’s global military capability and commitment is the strategic linchpin undergirding our longstanding and successful strategy of international engagement and leadership.”Better than any official U.S. document in recent memory, the NDP report strived to make the case that our extensive engagement and forward-stationed forces are important to our own prosperity.

It also claimed that current budget limits could be dangerous. The report states:

Attempting to address America’s budget woes through defense spending cuts is dangerous and ultimately self-defeating. In this economically interdependent but poorly integrated and unstable world, an America less capable of global leadership will soon become a poorer America less capable of meeting its other federal priorities.

Of course, it is hyperbole to say that defense is bearing the entire burden of balancing the Nation’s budget. Further, the panel evades the real underlying social and economic foundations for America’s strength and standing. Unfortunately, the NDP’s report is quiet on maximizing the value of the half a trillion dollars we already spend. It is true that we live in an unstable world, but it is not immediately apparent how their more expansive budgetary vision makes the U.S. safer and more prosperous if it contributes to greater national debt and a reduced capacity to reinvest in our economic foundations.


The former DOD Comptroller Dov Zakheim called the NDP:

a true strategic blueprint for coping with the challenges of today and tomorrow. It has made a major contribution to the national security of the United States and the president should both make the most of its findings and act quickly on its recommendations.

Other defenders of the Pentagon coffers called the report a “wake up call.” But apparently someone hit the snooze button or was napping at the beach. Aside from a small number of op-eds, major U.S. newspapers did not cover the report. Moreover, the report — and administration critics who took up its call — directed fires at the wrong target. Its recommendations should be pointed at the Congress, not the executive branch. The President has already asked for funding levels above sequestration caps and for authorities to enhance defense efficiency, and has not gotten any support from the Legislative Branch. If Congress would not act on President Obama’s request for $140 billion across the rest of the decade, it is not clear why the NDP’s proposed additional $500-600 billion over the same period is something Congress will act quickly upon.

And even had the report been aimed at Congress, it is not clear what they would be able to do with it.

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.

Force Structure

The services, however, will be pleased with the NDP’s principal force structure recommendations, which include:

  • An Army of 490,000 vice the current 420,000
  • A Navy of 323-346 ships (now 280 and sliding south)
  • An Air Force that is larger than the programmed QDR force for FY19 with increases to “the number of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of conducting both ISR and long range strike in contested airspace”
  • Retaining the Marine Corps at 182K, not the current 175K

The Army and the Navy are the biggest winners in the NDP report. I am on record about the value of seapower and the need for a larger Navy. There is little doubt, as Bryan McGrath has noted, that American naval power is dwindling relative to the roles it has been assigned. Here the NDP made well-founded recommendations for increased submarine production, greater investments in directed energy weapons for ship defense against rising missile threats, and a paradigm shift in “unmanned undersea systems in order to regain much needed capacity and retain a measure of maritime technological dominance in the decades ahead.” But the size of this force structure drives up its expense significantly and accounts for much of increased cost.

Strategy is about Priorities

The real problem today is learning how to deal with the resources allotted and the Pentagon has lost precious time dealing with hard choices. Dr. Kori Schake of the Hoover Institute has called for more strategic efficiency and creative solutions, in a superb essayin Orbis titled “Security and Solvency.” Clark Murdock, a respected strategic analyst now at CSIS, wrote in Defense News that the Pentagon needs to begin moving now to address affordability. In Murdock’s view, DOD must focus on “the need to use the defense dollars we have as efficiently as we can for the threats we will face tomorrow, not simply bring forward a shrunken version of today’s military.” Instead, however, it seems the NDP called for a larger version of todays military and every possible technology project.

The NDP fulfilled the mandate set out for it by Congress, but copped out in terms of the ultimate task of strategy: dealing with risk, making tradeoffs, and prioritizing objectives. Thus, this is not a useful strategic exercise unless it succeeds in shocking Congress out of its lethargy and helps propel a new consensus. The NDP can be applauded for balancing ends and means, and for being honest about its hefty cost. It might help leading members of Congress galvanize support for supporting American military predominance and sustained global leadership, but I doubt that will happen. And thus the NDP’s report represents a missed opportunity to help Congress understand how to address the impacts of sequestration in strategic terms. The advisory panel approached defense spending limits as an artificial construct rather than a new reality of the U.S. political consensus.  Because it did not deal with that reality, it’s an indulgent fantasy and not an exercise in sound strategy.

The Pentagon has struggled to adapt to a new strategic environment in which past practices are no longer affordable. It needs more flexibility and more help from Congress in reducing overhead, unneeded infrastructure, outdated management practices, and spiraling costs. Other than expressing support for compensation reform, the NDP did not push Congress to support reforms and retarded adaptation by holding out the hope that its expensive wish list will be acted upon.


Despite these criticisms, the NDP apparently has utility for Congress. To expand that value, its agenda and analytical resources should be expanded and its charter refined. Rather than continue to expect the impossible from the Pentagon, we should move forward. Congress should repeal the QDR requirement. It already gets the budget and detailed documentation each year, and the Pentagon’s bureaucracy is obviously not going to generate strategic options outside the limits of the administration’s policy. It was always unreasonable to expect the Pentagon to proffer a critique of itself or its policy masters in the White House.

Congress should use other mechanisms to generate the deep insights and alternatives it appears to require. If the problem is an understanding of longer term threats, task the Intelligence Community with a classified 10-year threat analysis during the year prior to the NDP. If you want a report card on the current defense strategy, and you want an alternative, task the NDP to generate a strategy, not a list of programs or force structure additions. Mandate that the NDP provide offsets from within the existing defense budget, defining what it thinks is the lowest priority. Require that it prioritize all increases in $5 billion increments if it proposes increased budgetary assets.

Most importantly, new legislation should not allow the NDP to generate a consensus document that simply aggregates the wish lists of its members or the constituencies they represent. Force them to generate what Congress ultimately needs: a prioritized list of recommended spending packages. Help Congress understand the connection between these spending packages and tradeoffs, risks, and threats. If Congress is to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide for the common defense, and understand the true risks we face, it needs more than a long shopping list that exceeds our defense wallet.

This year’s NDP is designed to shock the Congress into recognizing the yawning gap between our aspirations on the one hand, and the Pentagon’s capacity to secure them with the resources that Congress has provided on the other. But sticker shock therapy is not going to wake the country from its strategic stupor — even despite the evident disorder coming out of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After several years of bleating by defense hawks, there is a great demand for serious strategy but little appetite for “the sky is falling” from Pentagon supporters. That approach has not garnered a single positive legislative change in three years. That deafening sound you hear is just well-deserved crickets.


Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University. These views do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Michael Baird