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Does Strategy Drive the U.S. Defense Budget?

Our word, “economy,” comes from the ancient Greek word oikos, for house. A well-run household balances educational, spiritual, familial aims and necessities with the means to provide these. Effective national security is similar.  It sets large strategic objectives, provides the technology and other necessaries to achieve them, and channels resources appropriately.  But where resources are the real arbiter of strategy, a nation’s security wobbles.

This is what is happening to U.S. security today.  The military part of national security must have tools.  Tools demand time and stable funding.  Today’s budget confrontations, which are the result of profound differences in political opinion, are wobbling the future of U.S. defenses.  The uncertainty that lies over the entire defense budget is in part a result of the limits that Congress placed on defense spending in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The act allowed an increase in federal borrowing in exchange for sequestering money if a bipartisan Congressional committee could not agree on reducing the deficit.  They could not agree. The sequesters took effect.  Defense planners recalculated.

Then Congress offered modest relief from sequestration for 2014 and 2015.  The planners recalculated again.  But for most large categories of large military equipment, ships and airplanes, two years is not much more than a blink.  For example, four years are required for the refueling of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its associated complex overhaul.  What’s a planner to do?  Fudge.  But aircraft carriers are inseparable from the U.S.’s strategy of preserving stability abroad to avoid having to defend the nation along its 95,000 miles of coastline. Fudging with instruments that are at the heart of U.S. strategy is very risky.  It is as powerful an invitation to trouble as making idle threats or allowing a bully -- like Hitler -- to use force to achieve his ends.

The uncertainty that hangs over the future of the carrier USS George Washington is a lesson in fudging.  The ship was commissioned 22 years ago.  Its nuclear reactor needs to be refueled.  The ship has decades of useful service life ahead if refueled and overhauled.  Another carrier, U.S.S. Enterprise, is now being deactivated.  The Big E began its service life in the second year of the Kennedy administration and ended it in 2012: 50 years. Washington -- the ship -- however, is caught in the sporadic cross-currents of today’s budget tergiversations. The law of the land requires the Navy to maintain 11 aircraft carriers.  Yet the Navy has decided to wait a year to decide whether to refuel or retire U.S.S. George Washington.  Why?  Because if there is no relief from sequestration in fiscal year 2016 there’s no telling where the money will come from or whether enough flexibility will be available to move money from one part of Navy’s budget to another.

At the same time, other parts of Navy’s budget assume the carrier’s deactivation.  The budget request to man George Washington drops from $323.7 million dollars in FY’15 to one-tenth of that in FY’19.  These numbers can be changed.  And, under constant pressure to show reduced future expenses, there is a logic to counting the ship out if the sought-for relief from sequestration does not continue into the future.  But the enfeebled manning budget is a troubling sign of an organization grasping for savings at the cost of its strategy.