The Defense Budget Non-Debate

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Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

Last week, as he issued his political budget, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan tried to pull the “Generals are not telling us the honest truth” rabbit out of the hat. The Wisconsin Republican was suggesting that either the military leadership was lying — in saying they could live with $487 billion less over the next 10 years than they had previously hoped for — or that they had somehow been muzzled by the White House and were just singing to a common hymnal, scripted for the occasion.

There is a stunning lack of awareness of the realities of national-security budgeting buried in Ryan’s attempt to make political hay out of the fact that defense budgets are now projected to be flat, not growing above the rate of inflation (for that is all the administration has done.) Ryan and many other political leaders appear not to be aware that budgets and policy operate in synergy, always have and always will. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Bernard Brodie, the great strategic thinker, wrote it more than thirty years ago: “strategy wears a dollar sign.”  Strategy affects resources; resources affect strategy.  That’s the way the defense business is done, has always been done.  Yes, indeed, we would not have had a strategy review last year, in the middle period between regular four year reviews, were it not for the reality that resources are not going to grow as previously projected.

And wasn’t it smart to have a strategy review, instead of just salami slicing the budget in every direction, knowing that resources would be less generous than thought? Frankly, the defense plan, after Iraq and (soon) after Afghanistan needs just that kind of review, and more.  With a defense budget that is around $150 billion higher (in constant dollars) than any previous spending peak, peace or war, and with unprecedented global military superiority, we have more than enough room to deal with flat defense budgets.

And we could go even further.  In fact, that flat budget actually grows in current year dollars, rather than falling.  In the last three defense build-downs (for that is what is going on), the defense budget has fallen an average of 30% in constant dollars over ten years.  So the Panetta/Dempsey plan is pretty shallow, compared to history.

And it will go down further.  The Ryan budget resolution proposal, which is largely a political poster for the Republicans in an election year, not an implementable budget), will not survive.  Democratic alternatives have already died in the House and will not rise from the dead in the Senate.  Lots of conversations will happen in the halls about budget deals and sequesters, but until the American people vote, there will be no progress. Oh, there will be a budget, you bet on it; the appropriators always get around to that, even if it is likely to be a Continuing Resolution until after the election.

But we won’t know the next chapter in the story until then.  Maybe it’s a deal (likely if the election produces a split decision); maybe it’s something new (if either party runs the table).  Maybe it’s even a sequester for discretionary spending in January.  But with so many pieces on the table at the end of the year, a deal or a deferral of the sequester are likely.

Either way, we will hear lots of hair pulling, garment rendering, teeth gnashing for the next seven months, “signifying nothing,” as the Bard put it.  And defense will be fine, whatever the outcome, even at levels below those the Department wants to protect.