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Commentary: Force Strategy Into Budget Talks

Nov. 10, 2013 - 03:05PM   |  
By GEORGE “CHIP” PICKETT   |   Comments
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As we once again struggle with defense strategy, why not make some major changes? First, put the military more prominently in charge. Second, use the budget process with a twist.

The military is the only constituency that actually experiences war, has decades of effort in strategy and is held responsible for its effects. Ex-civil servants, ex-political appointees and ex-elected officials seldom get the criticisms, hearings, etc., for failures in strategies they created.

The strategic skills of the congressional constituency are in electioneering, not war. It has no practical experience (with notable exceptions). It views strategy through the lens of constituent politics and beating political opponents. Bases and district jobs are more important than military power.

As to the White House constituency, its strategic skills are similarly political. Its national security staff — positioned to deal with strategy — appears to have lost that mid-20th century orientation. The focus is on crises, politics and ideologies, not the hard work and choices of strategy.

The bureaucratic constituencies of the Pentagon, Congress and executive branch (with notable exceptions) are principally interested in protecting jobs, bosses and offices. Strategy is less important than funding favorite enterprises, defunding activities disliked and preserving their budgets.

Finally, there are the strategic cultures of the schools and think tanks. Again, with notable exceptions, these write forecasts, debate theories and focus strategy on generalities and abstractions that are seldom implementable. Even some of the relevant disciplines of politics, economics and history — and concepts of strategy itself — have made little progress in several decades.

Yes, the military has strategic holes (e.g., defending war as they have known it). But their predispositions, bureaucratic behaviors and strategic myopias all are well-known and more controllable than in the other constituencies. Most importantly, the military constituency has a bias for action and for protecting the nation. Strategy is about 80 percent action. Only a small percentage is about generalities and abstractions.

And only the military has in the way it raises and trains people, in its mottoes and pledges, and in its behavioral standards, the principle that defending the nation is job one.

Also, let’s set aside wasted efforts on strategy because everyone knows the game is played in the budget. The quadrennial defense review, national security papers, etc., either codify or at least don’t interfere with budget decisions.

Let’s address strategy through the budget, by forcing major budget choices through a strategy filter. For example, pick a budget question such as the next-generation bomber.

Why not force budget choices to explicitly debate the key strategic questions. Does the US want to be able to reach out and touch an opponent in 2030-50? Does it want to use the type of forces that project long-range, conventional firepower by air? Does it want to affect the ability of potential opponents to divert resources from defensive to offensive forces?

This is not advocating a new bomber. Any major investment involves similar strategic questions. Putting these issues publicly on the table in budgeting at least gives them a better hearing.

Moreover, why not force the ranking of these budget choices in an order of their strategic importance?

For example, which is more important: maintaining some level of exploratory R&D or 10 more Army brigade combat teams; a next-generation ballistic missile submarine or next-generation ground vehicle; tanker or long-range anti-submarine warfare; ground-based midcourse defense interceptors or exportable systems to Pacific Rim states, etc.? Ranking these decisions and debating them strategically will not be easy. Some will say it is hard to compare unlike choices that involve different measures, or they will plead that the risks and uncertainties are great.

To these people I offer one point: What do they think strategy is about, if not about major choices among disparate investments in the face of uncertainties and risks? No doubt this approach of packaging strategic choices contains challenges. But what it offers is a way to force strategy explicitly into the bureaucratic practice that for decades has trivialized strategy — the budget. Instead of living with the separation of strategy from budgets (and complaining about it), why not dispense with the current strategy practices and drag it explicitly into budgeting?

George “Chip” Pickett, a retired defense company executive and author of a book on business strategies for defense companies.

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