Given the inevitable reductions to defense spending over the coming years, forestalling cutbacks or eliminations of underperforming or unnecessary military programs would be “reckless and intemperate,” the departing deputy defense secretary said Wednesday.
On his last full day in office, William Lynn said the Pentagon cannot preserve all of its current programs, personnel levels and missions with the spending decreases it knows are coming. But he also cautioned against blind across-the-board cuts.
He delivered several messages, to several audiences:
To the nation as a whole: DoD knows it has to be part of the country’s overall budget reductions. “The core issue is to restore balance to our expenditures. If we don’t, it will sop our economic strength, and I don’t think you find any cases in history where a major power loses its economic strength and retains its military strength,” Lynn said.
To Capitol Hill: Cutting discretionary spending alone, even with defense included, can’t solve the country’s fiscal woes. “If Republicans and Democrats do not come together to tackle revenues and entitlements, there will be no other accounts to draw from than the public funds that run the government departments,” he said. “That’s the outcome I fear the most.”
And to leaders in the defense world: Lay the groundwork for reduced defense spending now.
“Things are not going to get better,” Lynn said in a farewell address at the Center for American Progress Wednesday. “Budgets are going to continue to go down, and costs are going to go up. If we cannot afford it now, we surely cannot afford it in the future. Keeping programs alive in the hope that there will be more money in the future is reckless behavior.”
At the same time, though, Lynn said he’s worried about the United States’ recent track record in conducting drawdowns of military spending. He said the nation is 0-for-4 in planning well for such reductions, beginning with the close of World War II. The trimmed-down military that fought in Korea was the first example of poorly-thought out defense cutting, he said. “Teenagers fresh from basic training, led by officers who lacked combat experience, found themselves facing a numerically superior North Korean force. With only 120 rounds of ammunition each, two days of C-rations and six antitank shells, our forces were simply unable to stop the North Korean advance.”
DoD is in the midst of a comprehensive budget review to figure out the smartest way to remove $450 billion dollars in ten-year spending. One conclusion so far is that some missions are important, and will need to grow, Lynn said. Others will have to shrink or go away.
“It is better to have a smaller but more ready force, and fewer but healthier programs,” he said. “The second lesson from prior drawdowns is that it is impossible to generate the needed savings just through efficiencies. We certainly can make our institutions more efficient, and we should undertake to do so. But we cannot save $50 billion a year through efficiencies alone. We’re going to have to prioritize. We’re going to have to eliminate missions and programs that, while valuable, are not valuable enough to sustain in the budget environment we face. The ‘nice to haves’ must go.”
Lynn said separating the Pentagon’s “must haves” from the “nice to haves” is hard enough inside the building. Compounding that difficulty, he said, is that DoD programs and mission areas tend to have very strong political constituencies outside the Pentagon. That’s a lesson he said DoD leaders learned when they first announced plans to shut down the military’s Joint Forces Command when former secretary Robert Gates announce his efficiency initiatives.
“It was a command that performed an important mission in terms of enhancing our ability to operate jointly, train jointly, develop joint doctrine,” he said. “Those are all important missions, but we decided we had reached a point that it was culturally imbued in the forces enough that we no longer needed a billion-dollar four-star command to continue progress in that area. When we decided we could do it for half that cost and without the command, that was a very politically contentious decision. I think we’re going to see more of those. There’s not enough money to keep everything. Some things are going to fall down lower on the list, and when you take $450 billion out, it’s going to affect a lot of constituencies. We’re going to have to work through that.”
While some Pentagon missions move lower on the food chain, others will rise to the top, Lynn predicted. While that might mean taking risks in some of the areas in which the military pulls back, he said there are some areas in which the Defense Department cannot afford to draw down, or even stand still.
“Cybersecurity is an area where, if anything, we’re going to increase spending,” he said. “Long-range strike so we can deal with anti-access/area denial, again, it’s more likely we’ll increase spending. In other areas, as we come out of Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re going to be able to make our forces smaller. We have to be agile enough to adjust, but I think smaller ground forces are going to be part of the future.”
Lynn said he is confident the Pentagon can adjust to changes, cut its budget and choose its risks intelligently, but only if it knows how to plan. On that score, he said, the chaotic political process around the federal budget of late is worrisome for DoD.
“The challenge will be if the game keeps changing,” he said. “If we get a different set of numbers every six months — and that happened in the 1980s and 1990s — it’s impossible to plan. The Pentagon’s a big ship, and it doesn’t turn very easily. If you give a course, a direction and a speed, we can do quite well, even with difficult fiscal circumstances. If you change that every six months or a year, it’s almost impossible to do well and almost impossible to protect what the nation’s expecting us to do.”