FPI Bulletin: “Unmanageable Risk” in the Defense Budget

By David Adesnik

Foreign Policy Initiative

March 1, 2016


One year ago, Gen. Martin Dempsey, warned that the President’s proposed budget for 2016 was only sufficient to maintain the U.S. military at “the lower ragged edge of manageable risk” to its effectiveness. Further cuts to the defense budget, he said, would “render the overall risk to our defense strategy unmanageable.” Last month, the President submitted a proposed budget for 2017 that provides the military with $17-18 billion less than what the Pentagon said would be necessary only 12 months ago. Yet last week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testified, “This budget meets our needs.” In reality, the President’s 2017 proposal reflected the spending limits imposed by the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA)—not the needs of the U.S. military. The Secretary of Defense should report this fact and inform Congress that the BBA will provide the U.S. military with less funding than required for it to remain at the lower ragged edge of effectiveness.
Testifying before the same panel as Secretary Carter, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Dempsey’s successor as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a more candid report about the state of the military after four years of sharp budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and the process of sequestration that it triggered. In his prepared statement, Gen. Dunford warned of “shortfalls in capacity and critical capabilities” that now threaten the ability of the Armed Forces to execute their assigned missions. 
In his statement, Gen. Dunford explains in greater detail how budget cuts have compromised military effectiveness. He begins by noting that the Pentagon is now absorbing $900 billion of cuts compared to what it expected before the passage of the BCA and the triggering of sequestration. “Absorbing cuts of this magnitude has resulted in underinvestment in critical capabilities,” the Chairman observes.
Dunford then says that because of “shortfalls in capacity and critical capabilities,” the U.S. military would be “challenged” to respond to a “major contingency” while continuing to protect the homeland and fight terrorists. However, the Department’s strategy calls on the Armed Forces to be prepared not just for one major contingency, but for two. In the event of a second contingency, Dunford notes, “Capability and capacity shortfalls would be particularly acute.” In other words, Dunford subtly concurs with last year’s warnings by Gen. Dempsey and the other chiefs of staff.
Gen. Dunford also expressed concern that the fiscal optimism of the 2017 budget proposal may be masking the extent of the shortfalls the military is now facing. First of all, Dunford explained, this year’s budget request assumes that in each of the next four years Congress will provide substantially more funding for defense than allowed by current law. Furthermore, this year’s request assumes the continuation of “favorable economic factors,” presumably a reference to low inflation and plunging fuel prices. Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger of the American Enterprise Institute estimate that a reversal of these trends could cost the Pentagon several billion dollars per year. Finally, Dunford notes, this year’s budget proposal assumes that efficiency programs will actually yield their promised savings.
One shortfall directly related to budget cuts is the diminishing size of the Armed Forces. Dunford observes that the size of today’s military is consistent with the requirements identified by the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Yet he warns that “the emergence of ISIL and Russian revanchism has changed the strategic environment since the QDR was published.” In other words, the world has become substantially more dangerous than it was two years ago, as indicated by a recent study from the RAND Corporation which found that the Army may be tens of thousands of soldiers short of what is now required. The issue of size also represents a major point of contrast between Dunford and Carter’s respective testimonies. For his part, Carter advertised that the 2017 budget proposal invests in what the troops need most, including “the right force size.”
Despite its inconsistency with the positions of Generals Dunford and Dempsey, Secretary Carter’s statement does follow the precedent set President Obama in his final State of the Union address. In that speech, Obama dismissed as so much “hot air…all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.” Yet last year, Dempsey testified that “our advantages over our adversaries are shrinking” and the Pentagon “must reverse the erosion of U.S. technological superiority.” Last week, Dunford told Congress that the U.S. military could dominate any of adversaries in a conflict that began today, yet that may not be the case five years from now “if we maintain the path we’re on today.”
This month, senior leaders from across the U.S. military will testify before a range of committees on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress should pay close attention to their precise words, since military leaders are not inclined to emphasize the divergence of their perspective from that of civilian authorities. If persuaded, Congress should take appropriate action to restore the strength that has been lost as a result of the deep cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act and the triggering of sequestration.