The Pentagon's Way Forward

How to transform Obama's new defense guidance and budget request into a complete strategy.

The new defense guidance and budget request released by the Pentagon can best be described as “pivot-but-hedge” approaches to global engagement. Set against the backdrop of receding American involvement in Afghanistan, a rising China and looming defense-spending cuts, the guidance and budget request direct the U.S. military to pivot to the Asia-Pacific but hedge against unexpected threats elsewhere, particularly in the greater Middle East.

While these are the correct strategic ends to pursue in the emerging international-security environment, the Obama administration’s plans omit two critical elements needed for a truly complete strategy: they lack clarity about the budgetary means, for which Congress is responsible, and they are ambiguous about the operational needs, which would be delineated by the Department of Defense (DOD). Fortunately, strategy making is an iterative process, and the U.S. government still has time to get it right. Congress should clarify the budgetary means by repealing sequestration, and DOD should address the operational needs by adopting a new division of geographic responsibilities among the army, navy, air force and Marines.

Congress must face the consequences of political gridlock. The failure of the deficit-reduction “supercommittee” triggered a sequestration process that will increase the amount of defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act from $487 billion to $950 billion over ten years, according to DOD. The Pentagon’s new guidance and budget request are based on the lower level of cuts, and senior officials have stated that they cannot implement the guidance if sequestration occurs.

The bigger cuts imposed by sequestration are simply too large in a world rife with threats to the United States and its interests. As we have concluded elsewhere, cutting beyond $550 billion threatens the U.S. military’s longstanding and generally successful global-engagement strategy, which the Obama administration has modified but upheld in its new guidance.

The process for implementing sequestration is even worse than the size of the cuts. Sequestration will push the defense budget off a cliff in 2013. That year, sequestration requires cutting the Pentagon’s annual base budget (excluding war costs) from the current level of $530 billion to $472 billion, an 11 percent year-to-year reduction that DOD must implement in a matter of months. If President Obama exempts military-personnel costs from these cuts—as he almost certainly will—all other defense programs will be cut by 23 percent to make up the difference.

Cutting this much so suddenly will inhibit DOD from implementing cuts flexibly and strategically over the decade. For example, DOD could sequence the cuts so that more occur after 2014, when the U.S. military will be less involved in Afghanistan and thus able to trim capabilities integral to the war effort, such as the size of the army and Marine Corps. Sequestration undermines this common-sense approach because it forces the Pentagon to absorb large cuts abruptly in 2013.

Sequestration also requires DOD to allocate cuts in equal percentages to every program, project and activity in its budget in 2013 and possibly beyond. Every weapons system, research and development initiative, and training program will be reduced by the same amount regardless of its importance to U.S. security. For example, the training budget for special-operations forces like those responsible for killing Osama bin Laden would be cut by the same percentage as the training budget for military bands. With all due respect to our military musicians, this is clearly a prescription for mindless slashing, not strategic choices that preserve more important programs. Yet this exact approach is enshrined in law and will take effect on January 1, 2013, unless new legislation is passed.

The responsible way forward is clear: Congress should set aside sequestration as soon as possible and work to develop a thoughtful, comprehensive deficit-reduction package. The Budget Control Act’s $487 billion level of defense cuts should stand, and any further cuts should be implemented gradually as part of a new deficit-reduction package—while keeping in mind the potential for greater national-security risk as the amount of cuts increases.

While Congress spends time working on budgetary means, senior defense officials should focus on operational adjustments, furnishing the military with more information about how to implement the new guidance. In our view, the Pentagon should adopt a new division of geographic responsibilities among the military services: In the years ahead, the army, partnered with the air force, should focus primarily on the Middle East, while a navy-air force partnership should focus primarily on the Asia-Pacific. The Marines should retain their unique amphibious roles in both theaters.