It looks as though again this year the United States government will be funded by a continuing resolution, a congressional dodge that carries over the prior year’s spending appropriations. Continuing resolutions do not allow departments to start new contracts or adjust funds to emergent priorities.

The predominant reason for failing to pass a defense spending bill is the Trump administration’s diversion of Department of Defense funds — authorized for other purposes — to the president’s signature policy of building a wall on our southern border. Congress denied the president’s budget request for that funding, and the administration chose to reallocate money appropriated for other purposes. The judicial branch of our government will determine whether that diversion is constitutional and legal; it has enraged many in Congress, making them deaf to DoD’s wailing about the damage to national defense.

It’s mystifying that the American public appears to believe our tax dollars are squandered elsewhere in government but scrupulously managed in the DoD. It’s simply not true. But Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been doing good work scrutinizing programs to identify spending eliminations to propose for congressional cancellation.

This essay is part of the Defense News 2020 Outlook project. Click here for more.

The DoD is engaged in the serious work of prioritizing its spending to its strategy, and that deserves congressional support. The DoD budget will require several more cycles of excavating lower-priority spending, making transparent where spending does not align to priorities of the strategy, and persuading members of Congress to loosen their grip on preferred spending lines. A continuing resolution for fiscal 2020 sets back that work.

Blame for the budget mess that the DoD is experiencing doesn’t just rest with President Donald Trump for his reckless endangerment of good relations between the Department of Defense and Congress, nor with Congress for imposing penalties on the executive branch that impair the DoD’s ability to carry out its responsibilities. Blame also rests with the DoD for propagating the fiction that DoD spending projections are achievable.

This is not a new problem. Secretaries of defense going back to at least Les Aspin in 1993 have propagated future years defense programs (the DoD’s five-year projections of spending allocations) reliant on funding they not only did not receive, but that they could plausibly anticipate not receiving. Nor is the military leadership innocent of perpetrating the fiction; as just one example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey stated in congressional testimony that even one dollar less than the DoD request would necessitate a change in strategy.

Yet, the DoD budget was reduced by nearly half a billion dollars that year alone, with no resultant change in the strategy. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford testified in 2018 that the current strategy required a 3-5 percent annual increase in defense spending to be carried out. They achieved that only in the first year, yet there has been no change to the strategy.

Repeated official warnings like the 2019 National Defense Strategy Commission’s entreaty — that the U.S. “might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously” — went likewise unheeded.

The gap between what we claim to be doing and what we are funded to do is both long-standing and untenable.

Instead of continuing to perpetuate the fiction that the DoD’s strategy is executable with existing resources, or that greater sustained resources are forthcoming, the DoD could do American national security an enormous benefit by exploring what is possible under extant funding. One useful way to approach the problem would be to baseline budgets in $100 billion increments with existing constraints carrying forward — so no magical savings produced by “improved performance”; no heroic planning assumptions that health care will be less expensive, or acquisition processes drastically loosened, or that personnel processes will be retooled to bring and keep the best and brightest into government service.

We need to stop imagining optimal outcomes, and develop practical pathways to the best approaches under constraints. And unless we discipline ourselves to engage in actual strategy — that is, connecting available means to desired outcomes in creative ways, and reducing the anticipated outcomes if ways cannot be found — our national defense will continue to sink slowly.

Kori Schake is the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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