Fixing the Pentagon's Broken Budget

February 12, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: PentatgonDefenseSecurityBudgetUnited States

Fixing the Pentagon's Broken Budget

Defense budget reform is not only possible—it's necessary.

Utter the word “reform” inside the Pentagon and many will roll their eyes or laugh. Initiating change to government processes and procedures invites skepticism or outright rejection, particularly within the Department of Defense. It is no surprise, then, that the Pentagon’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) process has witnessed few significant changes since its creation in 1962. Defense secretaries often focus their attention on the many external crises that dominate the headlines, and shun internal reform efforts or delegate them downward. But the Pentagon’s current leadership team is determined to change that perception. With Secretary Ashton Carter at the helm and Robert Work as his deputy, now is the time to give PPBE the attention it deserves. Now is the time to enact meaningful reform.

Designed to align ends (“what”), ways (“how”) and means (“with what”), PPBE is a crucial process that builds the future military force. But despite its underpinning of the department’s subsequent activities and operations, the process has three key problems: its timeline, its analytic system to model scenarios and its supplemental funding mechanism as reflected in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

  1. The timeline: Each of PPBE’s four stages is designed to progress sequentially, so that the department examines the future security environment (planning), proposes programs for investment (programming), develops a detailed budget according to fiscal guidance (budgeting) and ensures compliance throughout (execution). However, not only are these sections blending together, they are also disrupted by the untimely release of civilian planning guidance to the services. Although this year is an exception (and a sign of improvement), in previous years the department’s guidance has been delayed by months, allowing the services to prioritize their own programs at the expense of the broader military.
  2. The analytic system: Modeling scenarios to design and test the force necessitates a common baseline among the department’s analysis community, and a robust forum in which the various actors can debate their assumptions, constraints and objectives. In practice, however, neither one exists. Although there is agreement among the department’s agencies and components on these elements at the strategic level, when one delves deeper into the details, that shared understanding disintegrates. Likewise, the individual services maintain analytic capabilities that are much larger and more extensive than those available to a central forum such as the Joint Staff.
  3. OCO: Once upon a time, OCO provided additional resources to the department to fund unforeseen crises or wars. It was used in a responsible manner as a supplement to the base budget, particularly during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the past few years, however, OCO is funding programs well beyond its intended parameters. It is largely described as a “gimmick” and now incorporates items that would customarily have been included in the base budget, including operations and maintenance funding, as well as overseas bases that will remain in service following the conclusion of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With deep discrepancies between PPBE’s theory and practice, it is natural to ask why these problems exist. There are three explanations: the current fiscal environment, bureaucratic interests and peripheral authority.

  1. The current fiscal environment: The debate over the department’s appropriate funding level largely focuses on the threat of sequestration and implementation of continuing resolutions. Fewer recognize, however, that as a result, defense planners are forced to build multiple redundant budgets. An often quadrupled workload (the Pentagon built four distinct budgets in 2013) is straining the workforce and shifting their attention away from other budgetary priorities. Although the October 2015 budget deal provides greater certainty, there is still significant risk in the long term.
  2. Bureaucratic interests: Individual stovepipes within the department enable agencies and components to focus on their own institutions at the expense of the larger defense enterprise. One could make the argument, for example, that late civilian planning guidance allows the services to prioritize their own programs and advance their own interests absent a broader strategy. Similarly, OCO’s division into “functional/mission” categories enables each service to request funding for its own programs instead of feeding into the military as a whole.
  3. Peripheral authority: The lack of a consistent referee to act across these bureaucratic stovepipes and reconcile differing views among competing actors only exacerbates the problem. The absence of a central figure from the process contributes to the fact that the documents created and submitted as part of PPBE are evaluated individually. Each Program Objective Memorandum (POM), or “wish list of programs” for the services, is reviewed carefully individually but not viewed in tandem with other POMs. Likewise, each component and service maintains its own analytic system of forces, personnel and resources, which effectively inhibits anyone from taking a more comprehensive view across the department.

What can be done to rectify this bleak situation? As a start, to address the current fiscal environment, the department can engage in a serious conversation with Congress over the possibility of funding the Pentagon on a biennial basis, thereby extending PPBE’s timeline. To minimize the effect of bureaucratic interests, the Pentagon can prioritize elements of planning guidance to signal a strong connection between department priority programs and investments. And to mitigate peripheral authority, the department can empower a consistent PPBE czar and adjudicator to oversee the process from start to finish.

There will always be skepticism associated with defense reform, but there is recognition that PPBE has significant flaws. Now is the time to address them, not ignore them.

Michelle Shevin-Coetzee is a researcher in the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense