How Many Battles Can the Pentagon Fight in Washington At Once?

mad dog

Agenda SecDef relaunched earlier this year with advice for then-new Secretary James Mattis, warning against the demands of unreasonable expectations in order to focus on five key areas: current operations, the defense strategy and budget, personnel, and supporting a disciplined decision process at the White House. Since then, we’ve partly ignored our own advice suggesting further loads for his rucksack, such as civil-military relations. In parallel, Mattis has faced a remarkably slow appointment process and often unpredictable White House. As political appointees are finally trickling into the building, Mattis should reprioritize his agenda and delegate among his new staff.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

As the fiscal year begins, a defense wonk’s fancy turns to the Program-Budget Review. This is an extended process in which the secretary’s team reviews the budget submissions for Fiscal Years 2019 to 2023 to determine how they align with the secretary’s guidance and what gaps remain. It’s also a good time to reassert the secretary’s long-term priorities and find the dirty laundry that needs airing. In parallel, the completion of the National Defense Strategy and the need to close out Congress’s still unresolved FY18 budget are also on the to-do list.

In theory, there is a lot of momentum supporting these processes that does not require the secretary’s personal touch. Mattis may be inclined to defer much of the necessary debate and political leadership to his deputy, who remains new to the Pentagon and could use the convenient tutorial on the building’s skeletons anyway. But this is a prime opportunity for Mattis to set habits that challenge, as he says, the readiness and lethality of his own department. By this point in the process, the easy matters have been dispensed with and only the hard choices remain. This is the time for Mattis to begin identifying the things only he can do, delegating others to capable staff, and prioritizing what must be done now or not at all.

The 2018 Budget

Since 2011, the Department of Defense has operated year-to-year on a budget roller coaster that has done immense harm to both the modernization and readiness of U.S. armed forces. The future is paying the bill for unstable planning horizons at the expense of preserving force structure and keeping that force structure ready. Deputy Secretary Shanahan summarized the problem aptly at the Reagan National Defense Forum: “Right now, we have [the] time — one of our most precious resources — but we lack the stable budget needed to prepare for future fights. In a crisis, Congress will undoubtedly fund us for conflict, but we will lack the time to prepare.”

Short-term budget deals have substituted for a long-term solution but without any predictability and with unseen costs. Each year, defense leaders have gone to Capitol Hill (and to the White House) to insist that that the sky will fall without a long-term budget solution. Since the department is adept at putting its head down and getting the job done, the sky does not visibly fall. As a result, rhetoric on the threat of sequestration and the need for a stable budget future no longer has as much sway on the Hill — or even in the Executive Office of the President, where Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney has not yet stepped forward as a strong advocate. Likewise, regular criticism of reliance on continuing resolutions, which inhibit new program starts and internal funding transfers, has done little to stop Congress from starting nine of the last ten years under this funding mechanism. (It was 2009 when Congress was last able to deliver on-time appropriations to the department.) Engagement with the White House and OMB on such matters has grown ritualistic rather than urgent. September’s three-month continuing resolution — and last week’s second two-week continuing resolution — brought a brief respite from concern of a morale-busting shutdown. However, the new resolution expires on Dec. 22. With Congress tied down on tax reform and debating other political issues such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, there have not yet been any public budget deal proposals and time is running out.

Republicans in Congress have tried to get more stability in seeking a longer-term lift to the debt ceiling and repeal of the Budget Control Act caps. Sen. John McCain supported a Senate amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would have ended the threat of sequestration by eliminating the Budget Control Act caps on both defense and nondefense spending, but the amendment was rebuffed. As usual, the Pentagon needs to be prepared for the worst case.

Mattis should make himself the lead action officer for budget stability and insist on the full support of the White House to achieve a long-term budget deal with Congress. There are occasions where it would be unnecessary or a waste of his time for Mattis to be the final influencer with these bodies, and he should encourage his staff to form strong and influential relationships across the river. But on this issue, his credibility with both audiences offers the only potential hope of resetting the dialogue, and the challenge is sufficiently important that it justifies significant senior-level attention.

Strategy and Program Budget Review

In the last installment of Agenda SecDef, Shawn Brimley ably took on the contours of the strategy and programming debate taking shape within the Pentagon. We have only two amendments. First, as we have noted in past articles, previous secretaries have lamented the ability of the strategy and budget to emerge without any of their personal stamp. In some ways this is laudable — the Department of Defense is the little engine that could, doing its thing even in the absence of appointees or guidance. But particularly in his first year overseeing this process, Mattis should take direct ownership of the tough choices in the strategy development and associated programming decisions. In previous administrations, this meant an extended series of confidential meetings with defense leadership to directly question how their proposed investments aligned with the administration’s strategy and priorities.

With a leadership finally in place in nearly all senior positions critical to Program Budget Review, this may seem like a waste of an otherwise incredibly busy secretary’s time. But there are some decisions only Mattis can make and some conversations only leaders at his level can launch. The most challenging categories faced annually are those demanding an honest confrontation of what the Department of Defense will no longer be able to do in the near term. Similarly difficult is an assessment of the specific risks Pentagon civilian leaders “own” for the long term. Recent incidents, such as this summer’s collisions in the Pacific, have betrayed an unwillingness to “say no” to many echelons below the E-ring. The “can do” attitude Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson highlighted puts off the necessary conversations about what the U.S. military can realistically accomplish with its current force structure. Mattis must lead and set the standard for such discussions, and he must be ready to tee up such choices to the president.

A second reason Mattis should personally invest in this process is to understand the political waters his proposed strategy and budget will churn. Every budget includes lightning-rod issues that, in order to succeed, require commitments from the highest levels of,Congress and the White House — but most of them don’t get the follow-through they need. A useful lesson in this regard is this summer’s debate in Congress on base closures, which offered the first real sliver of hope that the department might actually achieve a vitally necessary authority. What killed that chance? The Pentagon has thrown such a proposal over the transom in every budget and authorization proposal for the last several years, but never put the political weight of the building or the White House behind that ask. President Donald Trump included this in his budget request, but unfortunately, Mattis himself questioned the possible gains in a June hearing, and his service chiefs have been lukewarm to the idea. If it is to ever get off the ground, the civilian and military leadership in the Pentagon will need to sing loudly, in unison, and with the White House’s backing.

Finally, while Mattis will surely have the opportunity for other major initiatives in his tenure, those matters that will require major lifts in Congress and in the Pentagon should be prioritized for this round — or not at all. Base re-alignments and closures, as well as personnel reform, fall into this category. Leaders tend to get very interested in reform initiatives toward the end of their tenures or when they need to scrape up pennies, but reform necessitates a tenure long enough to see through engagement, execution, and reassessment. Whatever his choices, Mattis should ready his workforce to actually implement his priority initiatives within his strategy and budget reviews as soon as the ink is dry.

You Can’t Have It All

So, after adding to Mattis’s to-do list in what is sure to be a chaotic season, let’s cross some other things off the list.

First, as Mattis gains additional senior staff — particularly his long-awaited under secretary of defense for policy — he needs to delegate many of his duties as White House interlocutor-in-chief and save rounds for when his intervention is truly vital. His senior appointees exist for this purpose: Use them. As a trusted voice in the White House, Mattis should guard that role carefully. The day-to-day inbox management will eat up his tenure if he allows it.

Second, Mattis should head off any potentially painful bureaucratic fights at the pass by setting a standard — and requiring his immediate office to set a standard — for quality deliberation before his review. Joint Staff proposals should not arrive in his inbox without consistent oversight and integration from his office from the first step. The services should not demand his ear on the budget without the third-party analytic power of the office of Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation. His deputy should never be in a position to play catch-up. All of this will save time later.

Third, establish and publicize a division of labor with this deputy and, as they arrive, his under secretaries. This will ease the interlocutor transitions with the Hill and White House and reiterate Mattis’s specific priorities.

Fourth, hedge hard against tendencies of being commander of Central Command. Focus should shift beyond day-to-day operations in the theater or regional challenges. Mattis’s most vital contribution to these fights are to ensure that the budget and force structure reviews reach beneficial effects and avoidable contingencies remain just those.

Fifth, establish a demand signal for an active State Department — and with it, less of a need for the Department of Defense to take up impractical roles. Mattis has long been an advocate of using the whole-of-government approaches to counter problems. In this administration, such partnership may require making clear to the White House what the Defense Department is not prepared to do, particularly in the counter-ISIL fight and America’s long-term presence in Syria and Iraq. Key among these is highlighting the consequences of not empowering other elements of national security in preventing the resurgence of groups like ISIL in the future.

Lastly, don’t give up the fight on fully staffing the building. The Pentagon is still behind in hiring, meaning the political appointee decision-makers are missing in many offices and, crucially for civil-military relations, can be crowded out by the Joint Staff offices also generating policy views. Mattis should push to fully staff offices as quickly as possible. This will ensure that his time can be spent making hard decisions, and other senior leaders can be the interlocutors with the White House and Congress on their portfolios. As more senior leaders enter the building, Mattis should take the chance to reiterate his vision.


Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served on the National Security Council staff and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Lauren Fish is a Research Associate for Defense Strategies & Assessments at the Center for a New American Security and former Capitol Hill staffer.

Image: U.S. Pacific Command/Jette Carr