Time for Pentagon to talk strategy
February 25th, 2013
09:31 AM ET

Time for Pentagon to talk strategy

By Bill French, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bill French is a research associate at the National Security Network, a non-profit foreign policy organization based in Washington, DC. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

As the March 1 deadline for forced budget cuts looms, the congressional debate over the Pentagon budget is tightly focused on the consequences of sudden and across the board spending reductions. The problem with this narrow focus on the so-called sequestration debate is that it appears lawmakers are poised to make decisions on the future of the U.S. military and national security mostly on the basis of raw numbers.

This is a dangerous game. Instead, Congress should take a more balanced approach that also uses a strategy-driven view of what priorities should guide defense spending. Until lawmakers take this step, it will be impossible for them to responsibly address what level of resources the Pentagon requires and how it can assist in reducing the deficit.

Earlier this month, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, inserted the question of strategy into the debate during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the budget cuts. Dempsey implied any further reductions would put the current strategy at risk, saying “What do you want your military to do? If you want it to be doing what it’s doing today, then we can’t give you another dollar.”

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But just like its budget, the Pentagon’s strategy is not sacrosanct. On the contrary, in its current form, it lacks key details to enable Congress to make informed decisions on the future of the Pentagon’s budget – or even to evaluate the accuracy of General Dempsey’s statement. While Pentagon strategy documents lay out impressive wish lists of objectives, roles and missions for the U.S. military, they fail to set priorities about the relative importance of the tasks that the Pentagon is doing today.

This is not a new problem. To be fair, the Obama administration has disciplined the Pentagon’s historically unruly wish lists, and the administration’s policy of strategic rebalancing to emphasize the importance of the Pacific and Middle East is a step in the right direction.

But cutting through grand lists requires something more than geographic areas of focus – it needs tough prioritization of goals. Put simply, lawmakers need to ask themselves, what threats are the most severe? What American interests are most at stake? What are the most significant gaps in military capability that the Pentagon is most concerned about and that require investment?

Answers to these kinds of questions are what  members of Congress need to know before they can make educated decisions about Pentagon spending, whether before the enforced budget cuts or after. Until the conversation between the Hill and the Defense Department takes this turn, any decision on funding levels will have been a half-baked exercise.

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That’s why lawmakers should start a transparent conversation on strategic priorities with the Pentagon when they return to Washington this week. Congress should request that the Defense Department provide guidance on how it prioritizes within its larger list of objectives, roles and missions. And the Pentagon should provide some explanation of corresponding funding it believes it requires over the mid-to-long-term to meet each of the priorities that have to be balanced against one another based on real-world resources constraints.

Only by obtaining this information can Congress manage the risks involved with large budgetary choices over the Pentagon. The exercise would be fruitful for the Pentagon, too, and might well encourage a disciplined return to the real world where wish lists are not fundable. Moreover, a focus on priorities may shift the tenor of the conversation away from ideological divisions and towards cold facts and reaching serious conclusions about national security.

To be sure, this is the beginning of a larger conversation that will barely have started by the time sequestration is either averted, fixed or modified after the fact. And no doubt such a dialogue would continue into the upcoming FY2014 Pentagon budget hearings and beyond. But as America prepares to enter its first post-war era in a generation facing towering fiscal challenges, there are real questions about the future of national security priorities that simply cannot be postponed any longer.

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Topics: Economy • Military

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Strategy

    "Maybe if we add a sixth side to the Pentagon, the people wouldn't view us as the illuminati. Let's do it!!!!!!"

    February 25, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Due to budget-cuts, the Pentagon has to be resourceful, if it wants to keep up appearances without overspending.

    February 26, 2013 at 9:28 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It's all about investing in strategy and not in weapons and gear.

      February 26, 2013 at 9:30 am | Reply
  3. thelastindependent

    This is a very important problem and big worry I believe the Defense Department and the American government at large has: the lack of clear vision of grand strategy. We can barely agree what is the purpose of our nation and its role on the international stage, forget how to do it.

    February 26, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  4. okie farmer

    I believe when French says "Congress should request that the Defense Department provide guidance on how it prioritizes..." he is tacitly admitting that the Pentagon is in charge of US foreign policy (along with the intelligence agencies, I suppose), and Congress plays only a funding role. Why doesn't Congress do its job and 'priioritze' what the DoD should be about? Reminds me of Romney's saying he would "defer to the Generals" when asked about what his foreign policy would be re: war in Afganistan.

    February 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
    • Aeros

      The scope of the defense budget is so large, the staff in Congress depend on think tanks and lobbies to redirect national defense priorities. The members of these committees are no dummies either. The administration has a lot more control just because their staff do the day to day research, review intel, conduct operations, etc. Congress understands this and second guesses at their peril.

      Congress is typically biased to ensure bases and programs are headed to their districts. They often manipulate the admin's strategy to provide more of this infrastructure ostensibly so we have a reserve in event of mobilization. They often intervene to avoid flawed or inefficient organization and execution. There's plenty of that to go round.

      As I recall, the spirit of Rodney's comment had more to do with delegation to the field commander. It sounds like a mangled sound bite. Foreign policy is done at State.

      What I find amazing about the present situation is that defense still does not have an appropriation. They only have continuing resolutions. It's really hard to relate the enormous and unprecedented abdication of leadership.

      March 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  5. Veteran

    As someone who has served honorably in our military (admittedly it was some years ago), I can say with all authority that we are fully equipped to fight any country that wants to start World War 2 all over again. The problem with that is that no country really wants to start World War 2 all over again. North Korea makes brave noises, but come on – who actually thinks they're going to attack any country militarily? We are all at the mercy of tiny groups of fanatics who can place bombs or computer viruses to damage our infrastructure. The world has changed, but our military thinking and budget allocations haven't. I have yet to hear how tanks, missiles, aircraft carriers or submarines will save the day in those scenarios. The remark by Romney about how he would "defer to the generals" about American foreign policy was one of the most terrifying things I think I've ever heard from a presidential candidate.

    March 1, 2013 at 11:24 am | Reply
  6. Aeros

    This is code for realignment. Judging by the house committee language, the congress is posturing on future defense cuts. They want the department to keep the current force structure but effectively take it out of hide. The administration is signaling less money means consolidation. The discussion about military strategy will involve which units to disband, what bases to close, what procurements to forego, etc.

    March 1, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  7. saudi arabia beheaded criminal so what!!! good for them I wish usa do that too

    YOU HAVE TO KNOW THAT THESE MEN ARE CRIMINALS,the men were reportedly accused of organizing a criminal group, armed robbery, raiding and breaking into jewelry stores in 2005. there is capital punishement in USA hung, the chair and the injection why it is ok for usa and for saudi it not ok, those men killed the store keeper

    March 14, 2013 at 10:15 am | Reply
  8. saudi arabia beheaded criminal so what!!! good for them I wish usa do that too

    in usa they kill children .....those killeras should be hanged as usa do capital punsihment too

    March 14, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  9. Nathaniel Braulio

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    May 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Reply

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