Congress’ unprecedented fiscal response to COVID-19 has many in the defense community wondering whether belt tightening will hit the Pentagon. On May 19, the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote a letter arguing for substantial defense budget cuts to support additional spending on the pandemic. Nonprofit progressive supporters have been asking to cut a much larger $350 billion each year from the Pentagon in their “Moral Budget” proposal. What the progressives perhaps do not fully appreciate is the “stickiness” of defense budgets.
In economics, stickiness refers to rigidity in the movement of wages and prices despite broader economic shifts pushing for new equilibrium. The phenomenon is apparent in defense budgets as well. Most expectations are that the fiscal 2021 budget will remain over $700 billion.
Consider an analogy: the 2008 financial crisis. Lehman Brothers collapsed just a couple weeks before fiscal year 2009 started, leaving that $666 billion defense budget largely beyond recall. The following years’ budgets were $691 billion, $687 billion, $646 billion and then finally in FY13 a more precipitous 10 percent fall to $578 billion. It took four years for the Pentagon to really feel the squeeze of the financial downturn.
The uninitiated may believe COVID-19 happened with enough of lead time to affect the FY21 budget. Congress received the president’s budget in February 2020 and has until the start of October to make targeted cuts without encountering another continuing resolution.
The defense budget, however, represents the culmination of a multiyear process balancing thousands of stakeholder interests. It reflects a vast amount of information processed at every level of the military enterprise.
The Pentagon’s work on the FY21 budget request started nearly two years ahead of time and includes a register of funding estimates out to FY25. Moreover, defense programs are devised and approved based on life-cycle cost and schedule estimates. Cuts to a thorough plan may flip the analysis of alternatives on its head, recommending pivots to new systems or architectures and upsetting contract performance.
Not only are current budgets shaped by many years of planning, but they get detailed to an almost microscopic level. For example, the Army’s FY21 research, development, test and evaluation request totaled $12.8 billion, less than 2 percent of the overall Pentagon request. Yet the appropriation identifies 267 program elements decomposing into a staggering 2,883 budget program activity codes averaging less than $10 million each.
Congressional staff is too small to understand the implications of many cost, schedule and technical trade-offs. To gather information on impacts, the Pentagon is thrown into a frenzy of fire drills. More draconian measures, like the FY13 sequestration, leading to indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts can sidestep hard questions but comes at a significant cost to efficiency.
Targeted cuts at a strategic level, such as to the nuclear recapitalization programs and other big-ticket items, can expect stiff resistance. First, there is real concern about great power competition and the damage that may be wrought by acting on short-term impulses.
Second, targeted programs and their contractors will immediately report the estimated number of job losses by district. Before measures can get passed, a coalition of congressional members negatively impacted may oppose the cuts. Resistance is intensified considering the proximity to Election Day. Budget stickiness is built into the political process.
The FY22 budget is perhaps the first Pentagon budget that can start inching downward. More than likely, severe cuts aren’t in the offing until FY23 or FY24 at the very earliest. That gives time for policymakers to reflect on the scale of the rebalancing between defense and other priorities.
In some important ways, congressional control of the Pentagon through many thousands of budget line items restricts its own flexibility. For example, continuing resolutions lock in program funding to the previous year’s level until political disagreements can be resolved. The military cannot stick to its own plans, much less start new things. If budget lines were detailed at a higher level, such as by major organization or capability area, then the Pentagon could make more trade-offs while Congress debates.
Similarly, if the Pentagon had more budget flexibility, then Congress could more easily cut top lines and allow Pentagon leaders to figure out how to maximize with the constraint during the year of execution. Congress could gain the option to defer the hard questions that can make cuts politically difficult.
The Space Force recently released a proposal for consolidating budget line items into higher-level capability areas. It reflects the idea that portfolio-centric management is an efficient method of handling rapid changes in technologies, requirements or financial guidance resulting from economic shocks. Until such reforms are pursued, expect defense budgets to remain sticky.
Eric Lofgren is a research fellow at the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University. He manages a blog and podcast on weapon systems acquisition. He previously served as a senior analyst at Technomics Inc., supporting the U.S. Defense Department’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office.