Too bad Chuck Hagel wasn’t at the Brookings Institution on Friday when a panel of national security experts discussed a solid agenda for the next secretary of defense.
He would have heard the former chief of naval operations, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, describe how the Defense Department could absorb the pending $500 billion sequester reduction in planned Pentagon spending over the next 10 years if it had “the latitude to rebalance its own spending.”
“The real crisis for defense spending is not downward pressure on the defense budget, but rather problems from within the budget,” Roughead wrote in a paper co-authored with Kori Schake, a Hoover Institution colleague. The paper, “National Defense in a Time of Change,” was the basis for Roughead’s presentation Friday and was written for the Brookings’ Hamilton Project.
His talk offered a clearer version of where the Obama administration’s Pentagon is heading, but from a military commander’s point of view.
Roughead called “unsustainable” defense procurement and all-volunteer uniformed and civilian personnel costs. The acquisition process, he said, was “too slow and expensive” and the service pay and benefits programs will “crowd out procurement, modernization and operations” within decades.
He questioned the view that security threats today are more complex and appear more dangerous than during the Cold War, when Pentagon spending was far less. He was seconded Friday by former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“What is different today is the speed and ubiquity of information that creates pressure to act, and an increasing impulse to prematurely translate violence and disorder into strategic threats [to the United States],” Roughead wrote in a quote cited by Nunn.
Nunn agreed that restraint was necessary and said that policymakers needed to decide “what’s vital” in making military commitments, distinguishing between “what’s necessary” and “what’s [just] desirable.” He said it’s also time to restore the idea that the United States would help countries but that those countries must help themselves.
Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, on Friday discussed the United States becoming more “a catalyst for common action” to meet threats. She also noted U.S. interagency action is hindered by the Pentagon’s ability to get money while the State Department cannot. “One department cannot be on steroids while others are on life support,” she said.
Roughead raised issues not often heard from active flag officers, such as the Pentagon’s purchases of excessively costly high-tech weapons and their use against less-costly targets.
“We are a military superb at effectiveness, but long out of practice at efficiency,” he said.
He even suggested that joint assignments had distorted personnel policies, becoming a promotion route and causing overstaffing of joint headquarters.
Roughead’s most controversial suggestion came after he described as an indulgence the pursuit of “equal service budget shares,” which “ensures continuity and harmony among the branches.”
Saying that current plans “will leave us with an overcapacity for land warfare and an undercapacity for emerging air, maritime and cyber challenges,” the former Navy chief called for the continued rebalancing of forces.
For him that meant reducing the Army by another 200,000 people from the 490,000 contemplated in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget. He noted that the planned current figure was 10,000 over what the Army had in 2000, when strategy contemplated fighting two wars simultaneously. That’s not the Obama strategy.
He also called for a 100,000-person increase in the Reserves and National Guard, along with “regular rotation whose principal mission would be arriving in a mature theater for sustained combat” should that be necessary.
Roughead recommended a further 10,000-person reduction in the Marine Corps to 172,000, which would put it 3,000 below its level in 2000. That would still allow it to serve as “the forced entry and initial-response capability” of the four services.
On another controversial issue, Roughead noted, “It is a matter of public record, many times over, that the military infrastructure [bases, air fields etc.] exceeds need,” but Congress has balked at closing facilities.
His and Schake’s paper is toughest on reducing personnel costs, which they say “exceeds civilian compensation at every point along the 20-year career period, with the greatest variance among those with only a high school diploma.”
They also note that pay is only 51 percent of overall compensation and that it’s the military “benefits, not salaries, that are crowding out operational and procurement spending.” Pointing to a 2012 survey of 2,600 military personnel, retirees and dependents sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, they wrote that service personnel in lower and mid-career ranks value their base pay most.
The study also found that service members at all stages of their career do not value the Tricare health program commensurate with its $52 billion a year in the base budget. Roughead and Schake propose phasing out Tricare for life, increasing copays for medical and pharmaceutical costs but grandfathering under current programs those with 10 years of service. For the rest there would be “a package of benefits tailored to their specific needs.”
Friday’s session provided a list of possible solutions to the fiscal problems that Hagel will face with sequestration looming three days after his expected Senate confirmation vote Tuesday and the need for Congress to approve extending fiscal year 2013 funding by March 27.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.