Sunday, June 19, 2011

The empire pares back

In occasional posts about Robert Gates' speeches, I've noted that he takes a risk management approach to military spending.  In Pentagon debates regarding how to much focus on building conventional military capabilities to counter strong rival nation-states (i.e., China in 10-20 years) versus asymmetric conflict in failed and failing states, he has worked to weight the scales in favor of the latter, arguing that "the most likely catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland -- for example, that of a U.S. city being poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack -- are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states." He has served as a kind of antidote to Rumsfeld's "you go to war with the army you have"; his mantra might be have the army you're going to war with. And war, for the foreseeable future, is asymmetric conflict in failed/failing states.

Last week, in his final testimony before Congress, Gates adjusted this approach to deal with the new reality of long-term deficit reduction pressure -- in particular, Obama's proposal to save $400 billion from currently projected military spending over twelve years.  Since personnel costs account for the bulk of military spending, cuts of that magnitude mean reductions in troop levels, which in turn means reduced ability to fight Iraq/Afghanistan-type wars -- which from a certain (probably wrong) perspective means reduced focus on the risks Gates has defined as primary.

The new budgetary pressure requires a different kind of triage from the counterinsurgency-versus-big-ticket-weapons emphasis Gates has pushed for in recent years. The budget-cutting imperative means doing less (military) counterinsurgency -- which means, according to Gates, accepting additional risk. That means that the U.S. must be prepared to do less militarily -- and focus on doing it well:

Here I would leave you with a word of caution.  We must not repeat the mistakes of the past, where budget targets were met mostly by taking a percentage off the top of everything, the simplest and most politically expedient approach both inside the Pentagon and outside of it.  That kind of “salami-slicing” approach preserves overhead and maintains force structure on paper, but results in a hollowing-out of the force from a lack of proper training, maintenance and equipment – and manpower.  And that’s what happened in the 1970s – a disastrous period for our military – and to a lesser extent during the late 1990s.

That is why I launched a comprehensive review – to be completed by the end of this summer – to ensure that future spending decisions are focused on priorities, strategy and risks, and are not simply a math and accounting exercise.  In the end, this process must be about identifying options for the President and for you, the Congress, to ensure that the nation consciously acknowledges and accepts additional risk in exchange for reduced investment in the military. 

Above all, if we are to avoid a hollowing effect, this process must address force structure – with the overarching goal to preserve a U.S. military capable of meeting crucial national security priorities even if fiscal pressure requires reductions in that force’s size.  I’ve said repeatedly that I’d rather have a smaller, superbly capable military than a larger, hollow, less capable one.  However, we need to be honest with the president, with you, with the American people, indeed with ourselves, about what those consequences are:  That a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things (my emphasis).

Additional risk, Gates suggested in the q-and-a, points toward dropping the ability to fight two wars at once:
And how do we adjust our strategies and how do we evaluate added risk by reduced investment in defense? One example of this, just to give you the flavor of what we’re talking about, for many years we have had a strategy of being able to wage two fairly major regional conflicts simultaneously.

If you tell yourself you’re willing to accept the risk that won’t happen, that two conflicts of that magnitude would not take place at the same time but might be sequential, if you had to take on two others, then that has real impact for force structure. I would just note that in terms of assessing risk, between 2007 and 2009 we, in fact, had two major regional conflicts going on simultaneously, so this is not – this is not far-fetched in terms of risk.

Gates outlined one other form of triage.  Part of his focus on giving the troops what they need now has been shoring up the failures in medical treatment for wounded vets exposed during the Bush years. He is therefore moving to protect increased spending on treatment for wounded vets -- particularly traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress -- while cutting the military's ballooning healthcare costs where they can be cut.  So: on the one hand:

Gates has moved money for wounded warriors from the supplemental requests and overseas contingency funds. “All of that money has been shifted into the base budget knowing that we will deal with this problem for many, many years to come,” he said. “So for our part, in addition to [Veterans Affairs], we have tried to make sure that the funds for these programs have been protected and will be protected in the future.”

And, on the other:
Let me turn to another issue relating to the Department’s personnel costs, the proposed reforms to the TRICARE program.  As you know, sharply rising health care costs are consuming an ever larger share of this Department’s budget – growing from $19 billion in 2001 to $52.5 billion in this request.  Among other reforms, this FY 12 budget includes modest increases to TRICARE enrollment fees – later indexed to the national health expenditures – for working age retirees, most of whom are employed while receiving full pensions.  All six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have strongly endorsed these and other cost-saving TRICARE reforms in a letter to the Congress.

Let us be clear.  The current TRICARE arrangement – one in which fees have not increased for 15 years – is simply unsustainable.  And, if allowed to continue, the Department of Defense risks the fate of other corporate and government bureaucracies that were ultimately crippled by personnel costs, and in particular, their retiree benefit packages.

Interesting to note that healthcare spending threatens to overwhelm military spending not only in the overall federal budget, but within the military budget itself.

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