Belmont Club

The Gates defense budget

Max Boot looks at the new defense budget and concludes that although he agrees with particular line item cuts and realignments, that overall it is still an “austerity budget” premised on the calculation that the US will largely fight counterinsurgencies in the near future. But Boot is worried that the future may bring surprises and that the US may leave itself unprotected if other scenarios eventuate.

It still looks like cuts to me. … Wouldn’t any defense secretary want to hedge against a variety of risks? Instead he is taking difficult decisions which, as Kori Schake warns, risk focusing “on counterinsurgency . . . at the expense of other military capabilities. … Bob Gates’s decisions on individual programs are intelligent and defensible within the parameters he is operating in. But in a world where we are still fighting two wars and face growing threats from the likes of Iran and North Korea, even as our economy cries out for stimulus, there is a good case to be made for considerably more defense spending than this budget envisions. What puzzles me is that Gates isn’t making that case, at least not publicly.

Glenn Reynolds notes that the administration is hardly making an effort at cutting the 2010 budget of which the defense component is going to be hit hard by the proposed cuts. So the “reshaping” argument is a better intellectual basis for analyzing the proposed budget, since saving money does not seem to be an administration priority. Speaking of reshaping, Austin Bay looks beyond the shape of the defense budget proper and tries to estimate the defense potential of the Federal Budget, reasoning that the sum total of military, diplomatic intelligence and development resources is a better metric than simply trading off one weapons system against another.

The continuing tragedy is that the United States has yet to comprehensively integrate civilian entities and non-military governmental agencies into this process and thus never achieves “Unified Action” (Pentagonese for the synchronized use of diplomatic, military, information and economic power). The U.S. military is often the only agency on the ground. Infantrymen must act as diplomats in the morning, agricultural experts in the afternoon and cops after dark. Gates’ article noted improvements in inter-agency cooperation, but — with succinct resignation — concluded that “military commanders will not be able to rid themselves of the tasks … .”

Continuing Austin Bay’s argument, there has been little analysis of how the giant stimulus package may shatter the focus of the bureaucracy rather than concentrate it, as agencies inevitably chase the funds which become available. The manner in which one “breaks the rack” in billiards can affect the course of the game. And the stimulus will “break the rack” by creating, through fiscal incentives, new and different places for bureaucracies to go, many of them simply in the service of political patronage or pork. The overall budget, and not just the defense budget to a large extent determines the initial trajectories of a lot of moving parts. But then, that may be what Gate’s cuts are all about in the first place: an attempt to set direction rather than impose cost ceilings.

Still, it is easy even for the best intentioned executives to miscalculate the future. Conventional ground forces were cut after Desert Storm in the belief that large troop numbers would no longer be required. Then came 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan and troop numbers were needed as never before. The current conventional wisdom is that the Air Force doesn’t need more F-22s. Some argue that it is wrong to leave the Air Force without the margin to face advanced air threats; or at least wrong in certain kinds of futures.

The financial meltdown is a reminder that managers have yet to find a foolproof way to predict the future. In the end, the shape of a defense budget characterizes the kinds of risk that defense planners are prepared to accept. It is possible to get it right for a long time and yet for it to fail at the crucial moment. Peter Bernstein, writing on risk, described the tension between those who believed it was possible to predict the future from the past and the inevitable tyranny of contingent events.

‘The story that I have to tell is marked all the way through by a persistent tension between those who assert that the best decisions are based on quantification and numbers, determined by the patterns of the past, and those who base their decisions on more subjective degrees of belief about the uncertain future. This is a controversy that has never been resolved.’

So to the question: has Gates bought the country enough defense insurance the sure answer is ‘wait and see’.