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Mullen Truth-Telling on Defense Spending

01 May 2011
Posted by Gordon Adams

As he approaches his retirement in September, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, continues to speak the truth about our fiscal problems, their impact on the military budget, and the consequences of ten years of continuous growth in defense spending.

He spoke to the Government Executive media group on April 28 and made four critical points policy-makers need to pay attention to, as the Congress returns from recess.

First, he sees the nation's "debt as the single biggest threat to our national security," a point he has made before and one the Congress will be grappling with as they approach the next stage of the budget resolution, the proposals that may emerge from the Gang of Six, and the forthcoming debate over the nation's debt limit. 

Second, defense budgets are on the table as we try to find a solution to the debt and deficit issues; "defense needs to be on the table and I'm comfortable with that."  In fact, the fiscal situation, he said, will drive down the defense budget: "the likelihood of (sic) the resources made available for national security requirements continue to go down is very high."  Members of Congress have been shying away from this reality, but did set a new baseline for defense in FY 2011, $20 billion below what Secretary Gates wanted and $11 billion below the minimum he said the Department could live with.  It's a good start.

Third, the Pentagon has not had much discipline over the past decade: "with the increasing defense budget, which is almost double, it hasn't forced us to make the hard trades.  It hasn't forced us to prioritize.  It hasn't forced us to do the analysis.  And it hasn't forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point in a very turbulent world of what we're going to do and what we're not going to do." 

The Senate Budget Committee needs to keep this in mind as they come forward with a proposed budget resolution, and they should be using the FY 2011 appropriation - $529 billion - as a starting point.  And the stalwarts inside the defense stovepipe, like the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees need to focus on this need for discipline as they start to mark up the FY 2012 defense budget.

And fourth, we have done it before, so it is no big deal.  The President's proposal that another $400 billion should come out of defense over the next 12 years is a tiny starting point.  That, and more, would come from continuing to let DOD's budget grow with inflation, compared to the current budget projection, as we demonstrated at The Will and the Wallet a couple of weeks ago.  The reality will be a much deeper reduction in the defense budget.

We have already executed three defense build downs since the end of the Korean War.  And, in contrast to Secretary Gates' suggestion that past build downs have made "drastic mistakes," the last build down, executed largely by Secretary Cheney and Chairman Colin Powell, left in place the force that used Saddam Hussein's military as a speed bump in 2003. 

Chairman Mullen is right, the build down is here.  The strategic review supposedly now under way in the Pentagon will not provide much guidance.  It is based on the scenarios used for last year's Quadrennial Defense Review, which set no mission priorities, no variation in the level of risk for the military, and was explicity not constrained by resources.  For one way to think about what to do, that goes well beyong the QDR and targets a highly realistic $1 trillion cut in projected defense budgets over the next decade (15% of current budget forecasts), check out the article my colleague Matt Leatherman and I did for Foreign Affairs in January.


Defense budget

I doubt the "defense" budget (really imperial war department budget) will come down much. Israel will demand that we keep up our war on Islam and that won't allow many cuts in defense spending. Then there is the "threat" that China will push us out of their sphere of influence and of course we can't possibly permit that. If China spends more on its military, we will have to spend twice as much, etc., etc.

Credibility Problem

Third, the Pentagon has not had much discipline over the past decade: "with the increasing defense budget, which is almost double, it hasn't forced us to make the hard trades. It hasn't forced us to prioritize. It hasn't forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn't forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point in a very turbulent world of what we're going to do and what we're not going to do."

OK, admiral, but what have you been doing those last 10 years? CJCS, CNO, Head of resources for the Navy. During that time, the Navy budget rose 50% and its size shrunk 15%. As a public budgeting professor, I understand that budget slack makes an organization strategically lazy. But you were in charge. The military is about leadership and doing the right thing. If DoD has been wasteful, during deficit years, and the debt is now our number one national security problem, and you were in charge, and you have nothing to show for the hundreds of billions spent, ain't it your fault?

Chapter and verse agree...

Totally agree re our economic 9not to say educational) weakness is a huge problem in national security. China has bucket loads of money and is spreading them around the world, whether by buying resources, making trade deals, aid whatever....

... And what are we doing? Involved in two pointless wars that I thought we were going to be done with by now. Seriously, we've been in Afghanistan twice as long as WWII! Pakistan-China-Iran as a growing alliance, and working to get Iraq on their side, is a serious mess. China is also terrifically good at copying other countries' advanced technologies and working hard on their own.

... and on the other hand we have the goofiness of raising the debt limit, for the kazillionth time (Pete Davis didn't quite give that number, but it was a lot). This is WAY beyond stupidity...

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