The Upside of Pentagon Budget Cuts

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Defense Acquisition University

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was on Capitol Hill Thursday testifying about the slaying of four U.S. officials in Benghazi last September. But the looming Pentagon budget cut slated to take effect March 1 came up often. “This will badly damage our national defense,” he warned the Senate Armed Services Committee, “and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world.”

Of course, not everybody at the Pentagon sees it that way. Sure, more money is always better when your mission is to “git thar fustest with the mostest.” But there are those outliers who see austerity as a bracing tonic (to help combat kontracting kudzu like the one detailed above, click here if you want to read it).

As one military officer tells Battleland, privately:

It’s about time we got some budget cuts around here – and I’m speaking as a person on the receiving end of those cuts. Status quo defenders who love to see the military spend decades and billions developing new weapons that don’t work and/or aren’t relevant to todays fights may disagree, but financial austerity is profoundly good news for those of us who are interested in delivering innovative solutions to urgent military needs. Although it doesn’t make as many headlines as the gloom-and-doom perspective, this positive opinion on austerity is neither rare nor new. For that matter, it’s not even really an opinion – it’s a conclusion based on a review of actual data.
Consider this: in 1995, two Navy commanders published a research paper that pointed out “Innovation is not necessarily or even primarily a function of budget. Many of the interwar innovations came at a time of low budgets and small forces.” Just last year, that sentiment was echoed by an article titled Why I Love Budget Cuts, in which an Air Force officer explained “Despite the widespread chorus of concern from industry and government alike, the cuts may actually do everyone — particularly American war fighters — a lot of good.
So color me skeptical when people talk about budget cuts limiting our ability to equip the troops. History shows budget cuts can actually enhance our equipment, making it better, more affordable, more effective, etc. Sure, not having enough gas money to cover the cost of flying / sailing / driving to the battlefield is bad news. Same goes for excessive cuts to the training budget. It’s a bad day if troops don’t get the training, paychecks and transportation they need. But if austerity mean we finally decide to build droids instead of Death Stars, then I’m all for it.

Another perspective along the same lines comes from Abe Karem, the father of the Predator drone. He was stunned when he emigrated from Israel to the U.S. in 1977 and saw how the U.S. Army was trying to develop its Aquila drone. From a recent issue of the Economist:

At the time its most promising UAV, the Aquila, needed 30 people to launch it, flew for just minutes at a time and crashed on average every 20 flight hours. “It was insanity itself,” says Mr Karem. “It was obvious to me they were going to crash because they had 30 people doing something that could be done better by three.”

Not sure Karem is advocating for a 90% cut there, but you get his point: more can translate into less.