Getting to yes on defense spending

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US Marines with Bravo and Charlie companies, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment conduct a rocket range outside Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • Hagel is smartly gearing up to solicit Congressional-buy in for tough Pentagon choices

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  • For all its talk of defense cuts, Congress has been less than willing to accept their consequences

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  • Congress has the power to hasten the creation of a “hollow force” just as they hold the keys to prevent one

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Borrowing a smart move from Robert Gates’ playbook, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will preview the major changes in President Obama’s forthcoming defense budget request for 2015 in advance of their official release. While the president’s budget is not arriving on Capitol Hill until March 4, Hagel will hold a public press conference a week prior to present highlights from the massive document.

The secretary will continue laying the groundwork for many difficult trade-offs that Congress will have to consider as sequestration-lite budget cuts continue. The services have been busy broadcastingexpected forthcoming controversial decisions to policymakers since work on the now-complete 2014 omnibus spending bill began.

By trying to get out in front of Congress, control the narrative and provide extra time that will surely be needed for greater education of members, Hagel is seeking a better partnership with the Hill than in previous years when it comes to accepting controversial decisions.

For all the talk of needing to make “hard choices” and put the defense budget “on the table” for further reductions, members of Congress have been the least willing to accept the consequences of these outcomes. Hagel has seen the Pentagon’s hands tied repeatedly by Congress in recent years as politicians overturned many of the major efforts to cut spending. Hagel should be commended for trying to “get to yes” with the Hill using all the tools at his disposal.

Now it is up to members to respond in kind by beginning a rationale conversation about the urgent need to get a more appropriate balance of capabilities and institutional support within the defense budget.

This will include efforts to reduce both active duty and reserve component Army forces, for example. Leaks of Army leaders’ decisions have already prompted members of Congress to draw a line in the sand that they will not hear of any cuts to the National Guard -- even before hearing the justification and without understanding the fuller budget picture.

However, as Association of the U.S. Army chief Gordon Sullivan said recently“It is important to know what overall budget level is proposed and where tradeoffs are made and priorities are set. Freezing the size and equipment of one Army component for the next two years when funding will no doubt diminish leads toward a ‘hollow Army’ that is poorly trained and equipped.”

With the many uncomfortable budget choices ahead, it is time for Congress to take a more thoughtful and strategic approach when examining individual decisions in the larger budget they do not like. Congress has the power to hasten the creation of a “hollow force” just as they hold the keys to prevent one from emerging. Let’s hope they start to put parochial interests aside and choose the latter. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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