Why this defense drawdown must be different: Q&A with Mackenzie Eaglen

U.S. Army/Spc. Daniel Herrera

U.S. Army Spc. Eric Waddle, of 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, takes a break as he provides security for and observes Iraqi workers renovating a school in the Al Awad region of Iraq on July 17, 2008.

Article Highlights

  • Between fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2013, the cost of military pay, allowances, and health care rose 90%.

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  • The Pentagon is living through its own Groundhog Day.

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  • The only question is whether the Pentagon is willing to follow through on much-needed reforms.

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Over two months in, deep and arbitrary budget cuts imposed by sequestration are popping up all over the US military with real consequences for those in uniform. This may be one reason the president’s budget request for next year virtually ignores sequestration. While Congress may be inclined to follow, the law remains unchanged and no grand bargain seems within reach at the moment.

This means that now is the time for policymakers at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill to seize the opportunity to mobilize support for far-reaching changes to some of the key drivers of defense spending that are threatening other essential priorities. Unfortunately, while there is a growing consensus in DC that such structural reforms are needed at the Department of Defense (DoD), the political will is conspicuously absent. AEI defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen has written extensively about this topic. AEIdeas recently sat down with Mackenzie and asked for her thoughts on the subject.

Q: Why is this defense drawdown different from the last five in America’s history over the past 100 years?

Eaglen: With the exception of one, the drawdowns that occurred after America’s wars of the 20th century were from a draft, or conscription, force. Those in uniform were obliged to serve and therefore much cheaper than the professional, volunteer military we have today. Even the post-Cold War drawdown from a volunteer force was one compensated much differently than troops today after a decade of constant combat. Between fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2013, the cost of military pay, allowances, and health care rose 90%. In fact, people alone now consume about 55% of the entire defense budget.

The Defense Department’s declining budget is not falling in the same ways as before. The surging costs of bureaucratic overhead, an over-burdened weapons buying process, excess bases, a growing civilian workforce, and the compensation packages for DoD personnel are poised to, as my colleague Clark Murdock at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has argued, “hollow out” the military from within.

Q: What have recent Pentagon leaders done to address the growing costs of the civilian bureaucracy?

Eaglen: In a word, little. Although Secretary Hagel has stated that he understands these costs are crowding out spending on essential capabilities, he thus far has pursued the path of least resistance — like many Secretaries of Defense before him. Instead of tackling the key drivers of spending, the Pentagon has time and again raided the shrinking pots of modernization and readiness, sacrificing national interest at the altar of political palatability.

The Pentagon is living through its own Groundhog Day. The list of proposed TRICARE reforms in the 2014 budget was practically identical to the list that appeared in the previous year’srequest, for example. Similarly, this year’s budget proposes to shrink the civilian workforce by about 2% through a variety of steps nearly identical to what last year’s budget proposed — except rather than shrinking the civilian workforce as expected, over the course of 2013, this workforce grew by nearly 2%. The Pentagon simply cannot afford to keep recycling the same reform proposals that have failed time and again. Defense policymakers need fresh thinking — as quickly as possible.

Q: What consequences will the growing spending imbalance have for US national security?

Eaglen: Left unchecked, the costs of funding the Pentagon’s overhead and bureaucracy will crowd out spending on readiness, modernization, and innovation. This means simply that taxpayers would be spending more on fat and less on muscle, and warfighters would feel the impact. Funding for unneeded bases, a swollen bureaucracy, a broken acquisition system, and deferred and in-kind pay and benefit are all stressing needed investment on critical technology, training, and equipment.

Marine Corps Commandant James Amos has testified that 50% of his combat units will not be ready for combat deployment by the end of the year. This major shortfall is not limited to the Marine Corps. Army officials have warned that by the first quarter of 2014, roughly 80% of Army brigade teams will have to be trained at the squadron level, depriving them of the experience acquired during more complex exercises. Two-thirds of the Navy’s fleet will be less than fully mission capable and not certified for major operations by the end of the year. And the Air Force’s senior leadership is worried about skilled pilot retention and crisis response readiness with sequestration cuts that have grounded one third of its fighter and bomber forces.

Absent unpopular but necessary reform, the Department of Defense’s unsustainable cost trajectory will compromise the military’s ability to confront the multiplying threats to America’s interests in the years to come. Fortunately for the Pentagon, AEI and many other organizations have offered practical solutions to get the Department of Defense on the right track. The only question is whether the Pentagon is willing to follow through on much-needed reforms.


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