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The Pentagon’s Fair-Share Budget Strategy: Reps. Forbes and Larsen

Posted by Rep. J. Randy Forbes on

It’s not often that a bipartisan anything comes out of the House of Representatives these days. So read on for what may become a seminal commentary from two of the most respected thinkers on the House Armed Services Committee. Reps. Randy Forbes (R), chairman of the seapower and power projection forces subcommittee, and Rick Larsen (D), a senior member of Forbes’ subcommittee and the strategic forces subcommittee, argue that the unthinking budget approach of giving each service a roughly equal piece of the budget pie must be changed. Their words are sure to echo in the increasingly fierce budget debate as the $500 billion in sequestration cuts begin to really bite deep in coming months. The Editor.


Reps. Rick Larsen and Randy Forbes

It would come as no surprise to anyone for us to say that Washington has a problem generating and implementing long-range strategy. The real challenge rests with addressing the origins of this dilemma. We think one hindrance to good strategy is clear – the Pentagon’s long-standing practice of building budgets that, regardless of our strategy, give relatively equal shares to each of the services. This trend has remained constant over the past several decades despite continuous cycles of change as the Cold War peaked and then came to an end, as new strategy documents were introduced, as budgets grew and shrank, and as new technologies altered the way wars are fought.

The “fair-share” approach is antithetical to good strategic planning and the Pentagon, whatever the size of its budget, cannot afford to continue on this course. Put another way, if the United States is going to posture its conventional and strategic forces to maintain a competitive advantage in the decade ahead, we are going to have to do much more than striving to dole out equal shares of the Pentagon budget pie.

The landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act has demonstrably strengthened our fighting forces by promoting jointness. No other nation on earth can synchronize as many disparate military activities to achieve such overwhelming effects. That said, at the same time Goldwater-Nichols has enshrined the achievement of consensus among the Armed Services as the highest bureaucratic good. This “least common denominator” approach means that all benefit in flush times and all share pain equally in times of scarcity, irrespective of the overarching national strategy and emerging threats.

The Department of Defense and Congress should reject this approach. Real strategic choices should not be built on fair budget percentages but on hard calculations about the types of capabilities the Combatant Commanders need to meet the missions we ask them to execute.

Instead of talking in terms of percentages, we should seek to answer questions of strategy and budgets by asking what we anticipate the national security environment will look like over the next five, 10 and 20 years. From there we can ask what America’s defense priorities and objectives will be and decide what combination of military capabilities are best suited to support these ends. While strategy is about ways, means, and ends, too often we dictate an arbitrary mean, or a budget figure, as the starting point and then let that drive the ends we desire.

What does the next decade or two hold? Certainly, the past decade has been characterized by prolonged counterinsurgencies in the Middle East and South Asia. These operations have exerted tremendous strains on our Army and Marine Corps, which received significant budget increases commensurate with the missions assigned to them by the President and Congress. While the United States will remain active in the Middle East, the shifting security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific have necessitated a re-emphasis of our efforts to this region. As such, we believe that in the coming decade we will ask a disproportionate contribution from our maritime and power-projection forces.

Going forward, the Pentagon needs to better translate its strategic priorities into new resource-allocation priorities. This should mean investing in a mix of capabilities that can operate in environments that are becoming contested by anti-access/area-denial networks. To achieve this, traditional assumptions about how our military conducts sea control, projects power, or operates in the electromagnetic spectrum will need to be challenged. Although a discussion about the ways to achieve this goes beyond the scope of this brief essay, we are fully confident this process does not begin by allocating equal budgets to each of the services. It is time to bust-up this long-standing and intellectually lazy method of managing our defense posture.

We look forward to continuing this critical discussion as the Pentagon concludes its Strategic Choices and Management Review and moves ahead with the development of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) are members of the House Armed Services Committee.

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