We are fools, even sheep. Reading the newspapers provides daily proof. For today’s example we have the Defense Department, which has avoided meaningful reform for generations by means of a simple dance step, play another round for us. It’s only 5 steps, well able to fool simple people even when repeated many times.
- Plan to spend sums of money that even the entire world could not afford.
- Reformers arrive, making the inevitable cuts — but ensuring a moderate rate of increase in spending.
- Reformers also announce profound, even radical reforms (again).
- Continue business as usual, absorbing the “reforms” without significant effect.
- Repeat years later for the next generation.
And so the play is performed yet again, this time with Secretary Gates as the hero. Even the always insightful Zenpundit is fooled (which shows the power of this simple drama). But you cannot fool all the people all of the time. The DoD two-step is by now familiar to critics (such as Winslow Wheeler), if not to the sheep in the stalls. The following reports rip the veil aside to show the harsh underlying reality (see excepts of these below)
- “Obama, Gates Agree on Defense Budget Increase“, Spencer Ackerman, 18 February 2009
- “Media Reports Major Defense Budget Cuts As Obama Proposes Increase In Defense Budget“, Brian Beutler, Talking Points Memo (TPM), 7 April 2009
- “Pentagon Pushes Weapon Cuts“, Wall Street Journal, 7 April 2009 — The key fact is buried.
- “A Tempered View of Gates’ Budget Cutbacks“, Winslow T. Wheeler. Center for Defense Information, 7 April 2009
For more information:
- Secretary of Defense Gate’s speech on 6 April 2009
- Transcript of his press conference afterwards
- “GAO’s New Cost Report and One Man’s Legacy“, Winslow T. Wheeler, Center for Defense Information, 8 April 2009 — Reading Between the Lines of GAO’s Report about the Cost Growth Problem
- See this analysis by Chet Richards, at Defense and the National Interest.
- “Lockheed stock and two smoking barrels“, Playboy, January 2007 – A classic about defense spending.
- Links to more information on the FM site appear at the end of this post.
(1) “Obama, Gates Agree on Defense Budget Increase“, Spencer Ackerman, 18 February 2009 — Excerpt:
Remember earlier this month, when the White House’s Office of Management and Budget told the Pentagon to cap its forthcoming fiscal 2010 budget at $527 billion, excluding the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – an increase from the $513 billion appropriated in the final year of the Bush administration? But because the figure was lower than a $584 billion Bush-era Pentagon wishlist for fiscal 2010, people started portraying the increase as a cut? Well, Josh Rogin at Congressional Quarterly reports (behind a firewall, alas) that OMB and the Pentagon have agreed to an even greater increase: $537 billion for the coming fiscal year.
“The new topline figure is $10 billion greater than guidance President Obama’s administration gave to the Pentagon only last month. The increase reflects the effort to incorporate some items previously found in supplemental war funding budgets, the sources said, but does not cover the cost of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will still require additional funding above the base request next fiscal year.”
A bunch of defense-budget experts observe to Rogin that the Obama administration doesn’t want to be accused of being soft on defense. But that would presume its adversaries are interested in intellectual honesty, which this budget debate has demonstrated to be a faulty premise. … That’s just how these debates go.
(2) “Media Reports Major Defense Budget Cuts As Obama Proposes Increase In Defense Budget“, Brian Beutler, Talking Points Memo (TPM), 7 April 2009 — Excerpt:
The big news from yesterday (still settling in across Washington) is that President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates teamed up to propose a sweeping overhaul of the defense budget–calling for the elimination of unnecessary systems and spending the savings on special forces, intelligence equipment, and other tools of counterinsurgent warfare.
In other words, by retooling the Pentagon, Obama and Gates plan to move a lot of money around, but they also plan to increase the overall defense budget. In the final year of the Bush administration (and excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) the defense budget was $513 billion. In FY 2010, if Gates and Obama get their way, it will be $534 billion–$534 billion that will be spent much differently than last year’s outlays were.
But you’d never know that from the news coverage.
(3) “Pentagon Pushes Weapon Cuts“, Wall Street Journal, 7 April 2009 — The key fact is buried.
Mr. Gates’s proposed baseline 2010 Defense Department budget of $534 billion is up 4% from last year. But it signals a major departure from business as usual at the Pentagon, with a heavy emphasis on overhauling a procurement process that he and congressional leaders have decried as being too heavily influenced by powerful contractors.
… Defense stocks rallied after the budget announcement …
(4) “A Tempered View of Gates’ Budget Cutbacks“, Winslow T. Wheeler. Cenet for Defense Information, 7 April 2009 — Excerpt:
While Washington, D.C. hisses and spits over the secretary’s hardware recommendations, it is probably more important to ask, what has changed, and if anything has, where are we now going?
It does not appear that the basic DOD budget has changed; this set of decisions may be budget neutral, or it may even hold in its future expanded net spending requirements.
We have not changed an anticipation to prepare for occupations in foreign lands (the advocates call it “counterinsurgency”), or to continue to spend most of our defense budget on forms of conventional warfare most reminiscent of the mid-20th century. To fight the indistinct, unspecified conflicts we may have to face in the foreseeable future, what has changed? The strategy? The shrinkage of the hardware inventory and its age? While many decisions were made, the Pentagon-ship of state appears to be very much on the same basic course.
For the Defense Department’s broken acquisition system, the secretary’s endorsement of the Levin – McCain “procurement reform” bill (now watered down at the Defense Department’s urging) means that business as usual is very alive and well. There will be some new bottles for some very old wine, but the bitterness of the taste will still be around as we rush to build untested aircraft (e.g. F-35), endorse problematic, unaffordable ship designs (e.g. LCS), and spend generously to defend against less, not more likely, threats (e.g. missile defense).
For one set of decisions, even if they are unspectacular, Secretary Gates deserves much good credit. He made people his first priority. Hopefully, that was not just rhetorical. The emphasis he put on medical research, caring for the wounded, and family support are all to be greatly commended. I fear, however, that Congress will do little more on this prime issue than simply throw money – as it has in the past.
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For more information
Essential reading for anyone interested in the condition of our military:
- “The Long-Term Implications of Current Defense Plans: Detailed Update for Fiscal Year 2008“, Congressional Budget Office, March 2008
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
Some posts about Secretary of Defense Gates:
- Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD, 6 May 2008
- I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008
About the defense budget:
- Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
- A neverending story: DoD’s attempts to stop cooking the books, 2 May 2008
- Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
- America’s Defense Meltdown, now avilable for free download, 20 November 2008
- “What’s wrong with the US military?”, an interview with Winslow Wheeler, 10 December 2008
- The economic Death Spiral of the Pentagon, 7 February 2009