The Drift

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Navigation Brief

WASHINGTON – Good Afternoon, Drifters

We’ve all been listening to a lot of BS about constrained resources these last few years. Resources haven’t been constrained. The lid was blown off and resources covered the ground like manna for DoD to collect and feast on.

But the world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. (Yes, mixing the cultural references. Deal with it.)

Budget cuts are coming as surely as the tide turns and the sun rises. One-time Drift guest-poster CDR Salamander has been calling this shot for a decade now: The Terrible 20s is upon us and sooner than we had feared in the wake of a massive spending bill and the worst economic disruption since the Great Depression.

When I start thinking about budgets and deficits, I turn to one man: Todd Harrison. Todd is kept locked up in the basement at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with a stack of Budget Justification Books, graphs and spending tables and a computer that only has Microsoft Word and Excel on it.

Despite his odd, monk-like existence, he’s adept at taking the complicated world of trillion-dollar budgets and explaining it simply for people much less smart than he is (like me). So why don’t we check in with Todd and get a look at the budgetary horizon.

Let’s Drift!


Budget Meltdown

So, before you launch into this special Drift Q&A, have a look at Todd’s recent Op-Ed in Defense News, it kind of tees up the conversation we’re having.

DoD must identify its ‘crown jewels’ in preparation for fiscal uncertainty

Or you can skip it, I guess, and get right into the conversation.

Here goes!

The Drift: You know, as soon as I saw the $1 Trillion-plus price tag on the stimulus package I sort of assumed austerity was around the corner for the Defense Department and you were saying that historically that has been the case. Can you unpack that a bit?

Todd Harrison: If you look back in the 1980s when we say deficits peaking in 1985, you started to see fiscal conservatives getting concerned. And that led to Congress passing the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, and that created the mechanism for sequestration. It also put caps on the overall deficit.

And so that led to the first sequestration for DoD in 1986. That law stayed in effect and the Defense budget kept going down.

A lot of people misremember the history. A lot of people think the drawdown was about the end of the Cold War, and that was true later on, but it actually started in 1986 because of the deficit.

Then fast-forward to 2008-2009 – the Great Recession – and that led to record high deficits and ten in 2011 we saw the Budget Control Act. And that was because of the deficit and a desire to reduce spending. And of course that hit the Defense budget pretty hard.

TD: If you look at the last few years of flush Defense budgets – you know, how did we spend our money – do you think we kind of wasted an opportunity spending it on readiness? When we had money to spend, we ended up fixing the same jets we had already flown the wings off instead of buying new ones. Was that a missed opportunity?

TH: That’s certainly one of the problems with readiness: You can’t do without it, but it has a short shelf life. You can put a lot of money into readiness this year but if you don’t spend the same thing next year, you lose it. So, yeah, I think maybe when we look back on this era when budgets were flush and we will wish that we’d put money into investments that would continue to have value to the force in the form of modernization.

TD: You mentioned in your piece that you though investments in this all-powerful, all-connecting network would be worthy of maintaining during the lean years.

TH: I think that would be a wise investment because it would enable the whole force to be effective.

TD: And you think the services should look at cutting force structure.

TH: Well you certainly shouldn’t grow it, because you’ll be left with more mouths to feed when the budget comes down.

TD: You are critical of the services in the run-up to 2013’s sequestration because they refused to plan for it. I was in the Navy and there we know “NAVY” stands for “Never Again Volunteer Yourself.” If you are the services, why would you volunteer cuts?

TH: Well what did not planning for it get you? That’s what I would ask people. They stubbornly refused to plan for it because the thinking at the time was that if you plan for it, it’s more likely to happen. Well, did it prevent it from happening? Nope. Not at all. So, maybe they should recalculate this time.

TD: If you look at the Navy, what do you think the Navy should shield and where do you think they could make sacrifices?

TH: Well you’re going to have to take a look at the strategy and protect what’s important. And I’d say Columbia class, Virginia class: Those would be important to protect. But then look at other parts of the force: Some of these surface ships may not be as high a priority in the strategy, they are going to be vulnerable. They require high manning levels. And some of them are pretty old, you are going to be retiring them soon anyway, you may as well accelerate some of those retirements.

TD: On that cheery note, I bid you adieu. Thanks for taking the time.

TH: Sure, no problem.

On to The Hotwash!

The Hotwash

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