Help Wanted! SecDefs Apply Here

Excerpts:
Leadership is required now to solidify a budget deal and put meat on the bones of the National Defense Strategy. While the strategy points the armed forces in a welcome direction, there are many unanswered questions and much analytical work that must still be done to steer this massive organization toward different objectives.
The president may prefer to delay his nomination for Secretary of Defense, but it is potentially harmful to those in uniform, for the bureaucracy, and for Congress. A confirmed appointee will have greater freedom to set a clear agenda and hold the Department accountable to it. He or she will also be more confident in representing the Pentagon in foreign capitals around the world. Finally, a confirmed secretary can do the difficult work of helping craft a strong budget deal that lifts defense and non-defense spending, and that doesn’t wait until the last moment to get it done.
 

Help Wanted! SecDefs Apply Here | RealClearDefense

realcleardefense.com · by Mackenzie Eaglen

Congress must confirm a Secretary of Defense as soon as possible in order for the Pentagon to get serious about executing the new defense strategy. The White House has yet to nominate anyone for the position—even as sequestration looms again in January. Leadership is required now to solidify a budget deal and put meat on the bones of the National Defense Strategy. While the strategy points the armed forces in a welcome direction, there are many unanswered questions and much analytical work that must still be done to steer this massive organization toward different objectives.

At the five-sided building, there already exists an unhealthy imbalance in the civil-military power structure. This trend will only worsen the longer the department lacks a boss with the freedom to act independently of the White House if necessary. Uniformed leaders led by the Joint Staff, in particular, have been ascendant for years, spanning administrations of both parties. There are many reasons for this, including the rise of the rock-star general as staffs grew, and the wars turned sour and now rampant vacancies in politically-appointed jobs alongside low morale and infighting among senior civilians.

Only a Senate-approved leader of the Department of Defense can begin to repair the civil-military divide, set priorities for the bureaucracy, and advocate directly with Congress for an on-time budget deal to raise the spending caps. The defense strategy cannot be executed at sequester levels. Especially given that for the last five years, the military has endured three years’ worth of spending freezes known as continuing resolutions. A strong leader is needed to be a loud and squeaky wheel in Washington to push for action.

The Pentagon needs help to stick to the task at hand. It is difficult enough for “the building” to do more than one big thing at a time. Defense civilians are not typically trained to think long-term, and their short tenures ensure constant re-education by the bureaucracy that kills time and causes projects to lose momentum. Meanwhile, the services are out for themselves as rational actors. These two trends are problematic given the dearth of detailed planning guidance by threat, region, and branch as part of the new strategy.

Further, fundamental questions surrounding the strategy remain unanswered. Namely, whether the Pentagon should emphasize long-term competition with China and Russia, or focus on readiness for war. At current spending levels, both cannot be bought. Presumably, competition requires more capacity to shape the international environment while investing in game-changing technologies of the future. Increasing combat power requires pouring money into readiness, rejiggering the modernization portfolio to invest more in conventional warfare platforms, and growing the force.

It will be difficult enough for the armed forces to invest seriously in just one of those priorities. Meanwhile, the National Defense Strategy Commission said the Pentagon must prevail in both competition and conflict. Ever more of the defense budget is spoken for each year a priori. That means fewer dollars to put toward innovation without significant disruptions to current plans or politically-unlikely reforms like base closure. A strong leader is needed to break service glass, cut cherished programs that are from a previous era, and socialize the chiefs that their decisions are not going to be executed on their watch but more likely 20 years from now.

A Secretary of Defense free from the handcuffs of “acting” status is also needed to do the hard work of educating policymakers on the need to maintain sizeable defense budgets. Members of Congress are inclined to think the sizeable defense plus ups of the last three years are enough to have gotten the force healthy when all they mostly did was a repair job. The budget bumps from 2017, 2018 and 2019 were more of a re-baselining from artificially-low spending of the previous five years. By way of comparison, if Congress had capped defense at inflation in 2011 the budget for this year would have been roughly where it is at $716 billion. That trajectory doesn’t even keep pace with economic growth even though three-quarters of a trillion dollars is a whole lot of money.

To buy the defense strategy, the three to five percent increases advocated by military officials must be annual. But current defense plans are flat just as new program starts and research and development increases are needed. Worse, the modernization portfolio of the late 2020s sees the most significant bills coming due at around the same time, and they are even larger than estimated. Priorities that have been deferred because of the wars and the Budget Control Act are coming home to roost all at once.

The president may prefer to delay his nomination for Secretary of Defense, but it is potentially harmful to those in uniform, for the bureaucracy, and for Congress. A confirmed appointee will have greater freedom to set a clear agenda and hold the Department accountable to it. He or she will also be more confident in representing the Pentagon in foreign capitals around the world. Finally, a confirmed secretary can do the difficult work of helping craft a strong budget deal that lifts defense and non-defense spending, and that doesn’t wait until the last moment to get it done.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness.

realcleardefense.com · by Mackenzie Eaglen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *