The Skeptics

Rep. Forbes: Right Questions, Wrong Answers

Necessary reductions in military spending are finally coming...probably. It’s not surprising, then, that those who want to prevent these cuts are louder than ever. Yesterday’s hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee, headed by Chairman Randy Forbes (R-VA), was a prime example. Forbes, with a group of military vice chiefs as his chorus, declared that efforts to cut the defense budget would result in the “slow dismantlement of the greatest military in the world.”

Forbes did, however, make cogent points on how to think about the issue of military spending. He offered four questions that one should ask prior to making decisions about the budget: What are the threats America faces? What resources do the combatant commanders need to address those threats? How much does it cost to provide those resources? How much can we afford? Forbes then claimed that the focus is on the last two questions, when it should be on the first two. Answers to these questions are necessary, but Forbes appeared unaware that people are addressing strategy in their budget recommendations. More likely, he is aware but doesn’t like the strategies being advocated.

The military brass at the hearing were also aware of the strategy question. As Forbes asked each of the vice chiefs what a cut as large as $800 billion or more (over ten years) would mean to their respective services, they all responded similarly—a reduction in strategic requirements would be necessary. But although they clearly understood the inevitable changes ahead, actually moving toward a strategy of reduced commitments seemed unimaginable to the vice chiefs and especially to Forbes. The reason for their reluctance became clear as the conversation continued.

In a back and forth with General Breedlove, vice chairman of the Air Force, Forbes asked, “When [the Chinese] make commitments or promises that they're going to have various numbers of aircraft online within certain years, do they deliver on those promises?” Breedlove breathlessly responded:

They do, sir. And that's probably the most scary thing about what they're doing … they're catching up at an increased rate [technologically] because of what they learn in those cyber intrusions. So yes, sir, it does scare me. When they say they're going to build 300 J-21s in the next five years, they will build 300 J-21s in the next five years. They will put the money to whatever they decide to do and that scares me because of the determination and the fact that they'll deliver.

Thus, it is the perception of the Chinese threat to our interests that is driving much of our defense priorities. But just as U.S. interests have grown over the past several decades, they can be contracted as well. Prudently assessing interests is an integral part of devising a strategy. As the vice chief of naval operations, Admiral Greenert, shrewdly noted, “You can't change a threat. You can determine what you view to be in your vital interests, your national interests.”

It’s difficult to imagine that the Pentagon will survive unscathed in future budget battles. If the base budget is held flat, and not allowed to grow with inflation, the military will have to make sacrifices in force structure and procurement to maintain readiness. Deeper cuts in military spending will require the services to prioritize among threats. With decreasing funds to spread around and a roles and missions review taking place, each service should be making its case for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie. Instead, they are avoiding difficult choices and, as evidenced by their testimony, are trying to ensure that each service bears only its “fair share” of the cuts while they protect the entire defense industry. Meanwhile, Congress willingly follows their lead because doing so fits neatly with their parochial economic considerations.

Developing grand strategy is not a function of the military. The military will not voluntarily change course and it’s not their job to do so. It’s time for Chairman Forbes and other status quo defenders to stop deferring to the military’s fears and develop a strategy that reflects legitimate threats to U.S. national security and the fiscal constraints of our economy.