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Where's the Plan for Defense Spending? (Updated w/Video)

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UPDATE (9/12): I just finished discussing this on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan Show. Watch it below:

Secretary Panetta must justify his "can't cut" assertion as part of the debt reduction debate.

Three defense issues have implications for both savings and investments in the debt reduction debate: (1) what size does our future military need to be; (2) why do we still measure military power by numbers of ships or brigades rather than the capability to rapidly acquire the knowledge to win; and (3) how do we achieve savings through transparency and accountability in the acquisition system?

Since Gen. Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the early 1990s, the United States has sized its military principally based upon a strategy of being able to win two large wars simultaneously. During his tenure, the two most stressing -- and likely -- wars were chosen: defending South Korea and a conflict with Iraq. These requirements have largely justified today's force levels.

One of those two wars began in 2002, and over time defense officials acknowledged that the Army's continuing commitment in Iraq prevented it from fulfilling its requirements for the defense of South Korea. Senior military leaders characterized this as an "acceptable risk," emphasizing that the Navy and Air Force's new technology was capable of "filling in" for Army units.

The defense budget has also increased 40 percent since 9/11, not including the costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two conflicts were funded by "emergency" supplementals, containing significant spending that was neither "emergency" nor needed for these two conflicts. The Navy funded submarine-hunting helicopters, the Air Force bought the future "Joint Strike Fighter," and the Army purchased more new equipment in the 2008 "emergency" supplemental than was in that year's normal defense budget.

Despite this large increase in funding, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently stated that defense cannot be part of further debt reduction. After 31 years in the U.S. Navy, I strongly support a military always capable of defending us and winning. But the super committee on debt reduction should ask Secretary Panetta: What is the metric-based justification for your assertion?

One of the two force-sizing wars of our past national strategy is ending (Iraq); the second, Korea, hasn't had large numbers of Army units able to support it for a decade -- at "acceptable risk." What, then, should be the basis for the size of the Armed Forces now? What is the national strategy -- and the related force-sizing metrics -- that justifies how many future forces we need? What has replaced Gen. Powell's two war strategy to objectively determine the size of our military force?

For far too long we have continued to benchmark our military prowess to the size of our forces: believing that numbers of ships, airwings, and brigades is what matters -- just like during the Cold War. The right metric is now knowledge gained by sensors and our capability to quickly turn this gained information into swift action -- from the strike on Osama bin Laden to Korea's defense, where aircraft technologically connected to exact targeting information can replace large Army units.

In 2005, the Navy sent Congress a ship-building plan that sought to improve its capability to win a future conflict by investing in knowledge and speed, not in more costly force size. For instance, rather than buying more submarines at $2 billion each, the plan proposed a netted sensor information system to track Chinese underwater movements, and then direct an aircraft to drop a torpedo for the "kill."

The plan never advanced beyond Congress, not only because of internal Navy, Defense and industry resistance. There was also inevitable Congressional opposition to reducing a program that meant jobs for representatives' districts -- whether these programs are the ones best needed for our military or not.

Now the Navy can afford even fewer submarines than in 2005, yet it has no plans for any netted tracking system. We risk having a less effective military today both by retaining size-driven metrics and by not investing in less-expensive capabilities that make the number of planes or ships less relevant to our ability to win.

Along with changing the metric for sizing our force, Secretary Panetta should pursue real savings from an accountable acquisition system. In heading the Navy's $70 billion warfare requirements directorate, I was struck by what the Defense Department does not tell Congress, who approves its funding. And when I was in Congress, I was taken by Congress' failure to be accountable for the funds provided for our country's defense.

"Unanticipated" growth in defense costs -- $300 billion for programs in 2008 -- could be checked if Defense Department were to reveal to Congress its "confidence level" (the probability that the price is right) in originally pricing its programs.

For instance, when Congress approved the new nuclear aircraft carrier (CVN 78), the internal Defense confidence level was less than 50 percent for its $11 billion cost. Nor was Congress informed of the same low chance of achieving the estimated cost of $2 billion for a Virginia-class submarine. In 2006-2007 alone, 30 major warfare programs ran 15 to 25 plus percent over cost estimates. And while Nunn-McCurdy legislation mandates a report to Congress of cost breaches, there is no follow-on enforcement of accountability for these frequent cost overruns.

Congress should pass legislation mandating: (1) The Defense Department provide Congress its confidence level for the cost of a program, with Congressional approval requiring an 80 percent confidence factor; and (2) if a Nunn-McCurdy breach then occurred, continued program approval would be contingent upon the Defense Department providing other programs to offset the breach. Otherwise, the "tyranny of optimism" that pervades industry, Congress and the Defense Department about unrequited funding is a detriment to military readiness -- and accountability.

These changes can contribute not only to debt reduction; acquisition changes are essential for accountability so we can afford the best and most of what our warriors need. Measuring what it takes to win our conflicts also requires leadership that shifts the benchmark away from capacity in numbers, to capability in knowledge. Secretary Panetta's role is to be accountable only to the young men and women who serve us, not to the defense complex.

Joe was a former 3-Star Admiral, Director for Defense Policy and the first Director of the Navy's anti-terrorism unit. In 2006, he became the highest ranking military officer ever elected to Congress, representing the 7th District of Pennsylvania until 2010, when he ran for the U.S. Senate.

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