President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have laid out competing plans for the future of the Defense Department during the presidential campaign.
The campaign-trail rhetoric came to a head during the final presidential foreign-policy debate last week, where Obama and Romney sparred over the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration and, more broadly, the size of the military and its role around the world.
What are Obama’s plans for the Pentagon in a possible second term? And, what would a Romney administration hold in store? To answer those questions, The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. turned to two former DoD officials — one from the Obama administration and one from his predecessor’s, who are now advising the candidates on national security and defense policy.
Michele Flournoy, stepped down as the undersecretary of Defense for Policy — the highest post achieved by a female Pentagon official ever — in February. She now serves as the co-chair of the National Security Advisory Committee for Obama for America.
New Defense strategy
Flournoy said Obama has been a strong commander in chief and has “kept faith with the military.” But there would be changes in a second administration, Flournoy said. And for the most part, Obama has already laid out what those changes would be, she added.
Last January, the White House and DoD presented a retooled defense budget, which was driven by strategic aims, Flournoy said. The new strategy “lays out some clear priorities and tries to protect investment in the future,” she said, particularly in areas such as cybersecurity, intelligence capabilities and Special Operations forces.
The strategy notably envisioned a shift toward the Asia-Pacific region, and invested in capabilities that would support the Air-Sea Battle concept of overseas military operations, Flournoy said.
The strategy also called for amping up the diplomatic presence in Asia, and “rebalancing” the posture of U.S. forces, Flournoy said with a greater number of military forces rotating through the region.
“I think the countries of the region have already started to feel the shift,” she said. “And that will be even more fully realized if President Obama is reelected for a second term.”
If future deficit-reduction efforts call for further spending constraints, Flournoy said, Obama’s preference would be to achieve that through “better management and efficiencies,” she said — not through program or budget cuts.
“Having spent a lot of time in the Pentagon, I can assure you there’s still efficiencies to be had,” she said. “There are still ways that we can bring our business practices in the Pentagon into the 21st century. And I think the President will try to focus on that and find ways to be more cost-effective, so we can keep investing in the force.”
As for where to look for those efficiencies, Flournoy cited redundant staff at the Pentagon and attempts to modernize military healthcare, known as TRICARE, without cutting benefits.
“I think there are things that could save large amounts of money if the Pentagon were to deliver health care like, say, the Cleveland Clinic does or some of the more cutting-edge hospitals and service-delivery providers in the private sector,” Flournoy said. “So, I think there’s just a lot of room to explore, and we should be doing this before we turn to cutting benefits or cutting investment in the force.”
While Army and Marine Corps levels are being drawn down to pre-Iraq and Afghanistan levels, that’s so funding “can be plowed back into modernization and readiness,” Flournoy said. “The last thing you want to end up with a hollow force, a force that’s too large but isn’t adequately modern or ready. And so I think the Army end-strength reduction is going to allow for some continued investment in their readiness and modernization.”
Dov Zakheim, the former undersecretary of Defense and DoD comptroller in the George W. Bush administration, now serves as one of Romney’s top advisers on defense policy.
Romney aims to grow DoD budget
Zakheim said Romney remains concerned that cuts to the defense budget — particularly under sequestration — threaten defense priorities.
Romney has proposed increasing the defense budget until it reaches 4 percent of GDP.
Zakheim laid out Romney’s multi-step strategy for achieving that target.
First, Romney would exempt DoD from the sequester and return the Pentagon’s budget to a 2011 baseline. Then as wartime funding — the overseas contingency operations account — is reduced due to the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be repurposed within the department, Zakheim said.
Beyond that, the defense budget would also grow as the economy continues to improve, Zakheim added. Still, he reiterated that the 4 percent goal would be fulfilled gradually.
“We’re not going to get to 4 percent overnight,” he said. “Everyone understands that, although I should point out that if you added the OCO account, the contingency account, to the defense base budget we’re at 4.2 or 4.3 percent right now, so this isn’t something that’s impossible.”
Reducing DoD civilians
Further savings would be gleaned from DoD’s budget through efficiencies, Zakheim said, in part by reducing the number of civilian employees.
“Obviously, this was tried in the 1990s; it wasn’t done in a particularly effective way in the sense that many of the people who left were actually people you wanted to retain,” he said.
To combat that, DoD civilian employees near retirement would be incentivized to leave, he explained, to stave off the need for a hiring freeze, which would only make it more difficult to recruit new talent.
“Clearly, with so many people on the verge of retirement, encouraging them, edging them along with various retirement bonuses would be one way to considerably reduce the number of civil servants.”
One point of contention in the recent presidential debate was the size of the Navy — which Romney said is now smaller than at any time since 1917.
But Obama, who also pointed out that the there are fewer horses and bayonets in the military today, said it’s not a matter of counting ships but of ensuring capabilities.
Zakheim defended Romney’s shipbuilding goals.
“If you want to have ships in the eastern Mediterranean, if you want to have ships in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf, if you want to have ships in East Asia — and everybody agrees that we do — then you just need more ships,” he said. “And you cannot get from here to there with the current shipbuilding program.”
Stronger military enhances all of government
The military plays a number of roles around the world, and a stronger military enhances all of government, Zakheim said.
“Our military is not just a fighting force,” he said. “Our military are excellent diplomats who support the State Department and maintain military-to-military relationships that are extremely important and we’d continue that. So, having a military that is strong, that is confident, that is respected around the world will enable our State Department, our Treasury Department, our other departments to pursue their objectives in a much confident and successful way.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.