Pentagon leaders say that strategy must guide defense cuts. If you want to spend less, they say, first figure out how to do less. One problem with that conventional wisdom is that defense leaders are unlikely agree to strategic restraint absent budgetary restraint. So as Harvey Sapolsky and I recently argued, defense-spending cuts should not await strategic reassessment.
Another problem with the claim that strategy should drive cuts is that those making it rarely fully mean it. Military leaders tend to favor strategic guidance until it harms their service. Real strategies choose among different means of defense, meaning that they should change service-budget shares.
Army leaders are particularly hypocritical on this subject. They mouth the standard line about strategy coming first but also warn against disrupting the golden ratio where each service gets a constant share of the non-war budget. So they are for any strategy except one that harms their service at the expense of the others, such as off-shore balancing. And the nation’s newfound aversion to occupational war makes that sort of strategy increasingly likely. That strategic shift is the likely cause of their increasingly hysterical rhetoric about defense cuts. The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, by contrast, says that if the country wants a new strategy that inflicts unequal pain on the services, so be it (he said so at the end of a recent event, recorded here, when I asked about it). I suspect that navy leaders, who also stand to gain budget share from strategic change, agree with Schwartz.
Taxpayers should celebrate this minor revival of interservice competition. Competition is a source of many good things, including bureaucratic good behavior. While the services are guaranteed equal shares of the defense budget pie, they have incentive to logroll support for each others’ arguments, inflate threats and gather for money. But if they can go after each others’ share of the pie, they have incentive to offer strategic alternatives, generating options and information that improve civilian insight about defense, and to prune costs to look more efficient. The 1950s and early 1960s were rich with technological innovation and strategic thought in part because President Eisenhower’s New Look strategy encouraged the services to compete for missions and bucks.
Reading this, most of today’s military leaders would say what Marine Commandant James Amos stated recently: the budgetary cuts create bad competitive behaviors and threaten the jointness and cooperation induced by the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Most officers have been educated in a joint culture that internalizes their mutual interest in colluding against civilian interference. As Sharon Weiner wrote:
The resource battles of the 1950s made the military keenly aware of the consequences of interservice rivalry. Determined to minimize civilian interference in the future, in the 1960s the services developed routines that encouraged compromise and internalized dissent.
Military budget cuts can induce competition that saves money and improves strategic thought. The national interest is to let the services fight it out.