Defense Think Tanks Serve Up Old Wine in Dark Bottles

06/14/2012 06:26 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2012
  • Winslow T. Wheeler Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information

In May, two of Washington, D.C.'s most prestigious and well-funded think tanks published reports advising Congress and the Defense Department on how, and how much, to cut the Pentagon's budget in the next round of defense budget reductions -- coming after the elections. It is highly significant that mainstream thinking has moved beyond the vapid hysteria of the "doomsday" comments of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's characterization of further cuts in the defense budget and that major think tanks are now talking about how to manage those further cuts.

That is the only constructive news coming out of these two new reports; their contents are an old vintage, frequently quaffed in Washington to provide pretended relief from the sobering demands of fixing a malfunctioning Pentagon and its budget.

Purporting to recommend "deep" spending reductions and how to reform a Pentagon increasingly seen by the public as disproportionately overfunded and poorly managed, both reports actually propose neither meaningful cuts nor significant change. The reports are inadvertent signals that we have moved beyond adamantly refusing to contemplate further defense budget cuts into the realm of pretending the cuts and reforms to be undertaken will be more meaningful than they actually are. In Washington, that's progress: a step forward but a much smaller one than the advertisers would have you think.

The two reports are the Center for a New American Security's (CNAS) "Sustainable Pre-eminence: Reforming the U.S. Military at a Time of Strategic Change" and the Center for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) "Planning for a Deep Defense Drawdown-Part I: A Proposed Methodological Approach."

CNAS's "Sustainable Pre-eminence" prominently discusses additional cuts in the range of $500 to $550 billion over 10 years, and it propounds "reforms that will make the U.S. military more effective as well as less expensive." CSIS's "Deep Defense Drawdown" report talks about a budget drawdown of 33 percent, and it urges that to survive the cuts DOD must "change the way it does business."

However, if you parse the reports' budget materials and their proposals for programmatic action, you will find the rhetoric is badly supported, sometimes even contradicted, by their own content.

The $500 billion to $550 billion in cuts over ten years that CNAS recommends (For example, see pages 6 and 10 of the CNAS report.) turns out to be a reduction of just $150 billion. A footnote on page 6 sheepishly explains that the $500 billion to $550 billion numbers are from a report in October 2011 -- which, by the way, is rather foggy about just what it is recommending -- and the actual reduction from Obama's 2013 defense budget plan -- i.e., the one everyone is now focused on -- is just $150 billion. (The larger numbers are based on higher "baseline" numbers: that is to say, a previous budget level that is now overtaken by events.) Thus, the half trillion dollar, nine percent, reduction touted in the main text is actually 70 percent smaller, or just an overall 2.5 percent reduction of the $5.9 trillion that Obama proposes to spend on the Pentagon for the next 10 years. That 2.5 percent is quite minimal: DOD's planning and inflation errors are larger than that.

The CSIS budget recommendations are shown in bar graphs on pages 24 and 43 of its report. They show a 33 percent reduction from the DOD spending high ($735 billion) in 2010; it goes down over time to the recommended drawdown level of $490 billion in 2024. As promised, it is indeed a one-third reduction, but there are serious caveats. As the report explains, the drawdown is measured from the 2010 peak, not the lower 2013 budget plan proposed by Obama. Against that lower baseline, it is a 20 percent reduction, not 33 percent.

More importantly, and as the report explains, the annual DOD budgets shown in the report's graphs include not just the so-called "base" (non-war) parts of the budget but also the spending for the war in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This radically alters the comparison of the CSIS-recommended levels in the "drawdown" compared to Obama's 2013 plan. As proposed, the Obama budget includes spending for the wars only in 2013 and because they lack any formally requested additional budget for the wars subsequent to 2013, Obama's proposed levels precipitously drop off from $620 billion in 2013 to $531 billion in 2014 with similar reduced levels held roughly constant thereafter. On the other hand, the CSIS budget recommendations only gradually decline from the 2010 peak, each year, proceeding out to 2024, when the one-third drawdown is ultimately achieved.

This means that the "deep drawdown" that CSIS proposes actually exceeds the Obama budget plan, as proposed. It could exceed Obama's plan by as much as $240 billion over the span of the proposal. However, it is also true that this excess will be diminished by whatever extra amounts Obama adds to his proposed budget to spend on the wars after 2013. The Obama administration established "place holder" funds in a non-DOD budget category ("Function 920") in the 2013 budget. They totaled $397.4 billion over nine years, but they were also a mechanistic projection of $44.159 billion for each year out to 2022, and -- accordingly -- were not a realistic projection of the gradually reducing costs of the proposed Obama policy to withdraw from Afghanistan. They do, however, present an outer, technical boundary to the extra costs of the wars -- even if illogical. Thus, the CSIS "deep drawdown" could -- theoretically -- be a decrease relative to the Obama budget when augmented by the "place holder" amounts. In that case, the CSIS "deep drawdown" would reduce the augmented Obama spending by about $157 billion -- almost the same as the CNAS proposal.

However, two further caveats shed additional but important light on the CSIS proposal. The proposed drawdown is over 12 years, not the usual ten of most long term proposals; the downward slope is very gentle and gradual. (If 2010 is used as the starting point, the drawdown is actually 14 years.) Moreover, under any realistic scenario that includes war spending, the CSIS proposal would only begin to save money relative to the Obama budget in its later years, probably no earlier than about 2018-2019. It is precisely, those "out years" that tend never to occur as planned in long term budget projections.

Thus, under virtually any scenario, the CSIS "deep drawdown" means budget increases relative to the Obama budget in the likely-to-occur short term, and savings only in the unlikely-to-occur out-years. It's not the first time in Washington that someone proposes an increase masked as a decrease, but you would expect that only from politicians.

It's a similar story on the recommendations to reform the Pentagon. Although to be fair, CSIS doesn't present any; those will come later in a seven step process they propose to follow resulting in a final report in November -- after the elections, when the real budget deliberations get started. Thus, CSIS's assertion in this Part I report that DOD must "change the way it does business" is just rhetoric, declaring intent without content. Time will tell.

CNAS does make specific recommendations. They are the antithesis of reform; some of them have the effect of preserving badly failing, cost inflating hardware programs, rather than fixing or replacing them. In other cases, the replacements are singularly unpromising.

For example, CNAS proposes to halve the Navy's purchase of 369 "C" models of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. The stated justification is that their short range "requires aircraft carriers to get dangerously close to enemy coasts or necessitates frequent aerial refueling." (See p. 36 of the CNAS report.) (Presumably, carriers still retaining the short-legged F-35C would be useful only in very low threat areas.) Moreover, to supplement the Navy's aircraft carrier fleet, CNAS proposes to equip the new "America" class of flat deck amphibious ships with the Marines "B" (short take-off and vertical landing, or STOVL) model of the F-35. This would enable those ships to "undertake some tasks heretofore only suitable for [aircraft carriers]" and to "replace [aircraft carriers]," according to the CNAS report. (See p. 36 of the CNAS report.) However, the F-35B has even shorter range than the "C" variant, and it has other limitations even below the F-35C's all too modest performance requirements. Moreover, using these amphibious warfare ships as replacements for aircraft carriers proposes for them to go into contested areas without the electronic warfare, radar airborne early warning or refueling aircraft that only conventional aircraft carriers can provide at sea. Perhaps CNAS means for them to go into no-threat areas, wherever they might be. In that case, why all the added expense, complexity and "fifth generation" hoopla of the F-35B?

The internally contradictory CNAS proposals on seaborne F-35s suggests the fundamental problem with the aircraft: its performance, even as designed, is immensely disappointing, and its growing cost long ago exceeded affordability. As a result, its advocates are forced to propose concocted justifications to keep it alive. (Find more discussion of the F-35 here.)

As with budget levels, CNAS seeks more to protect the F-35 from the serious re-consideration it has earned for itself than to acknowledge that our forces need a far more effective air combat aircraft that costs far less. I suspect the authors of the CNAS report have not contemplated that alternative: much better, vastly cheaper alternatives that follow the design and acquisition principles followed by the originators of far more successful combat aircraft, such as the F-16 and the A-10. That better aircraft can be had -- even promptly -- for less money is quite inconceivable to the blinkered advocates of business as is.

To supplement the underperforming, high cost F-35s it seeks to preserve, CNAS furthermore strongly advocates "integrated" unmanned aerial systems (drones) as "leap ahead" systems. CNAS has apparently not yet considered that drones have amply demonstrated themselves to be considerably more expensive and less capable in many respects than existing manned aircraft. (For more discussion of these and other unimpressive qualities demonstrated by drones, see a five part series on the Reaper drone at Time's Battleland blog.) Moreover, in advocating "integrated" (by that they mean multi-role, multi-service) drones -- the embodiment of the F-35 hardware design approach -- CNAS is merely advancing existing conventional wisdom, the available facts notwithstanding. It is such thinking that causes our forces to grow less effective at higher cost -- the antithesis of reform.

While there are several other CNAS proposals that fail to impress, the one to create "Red Teams" to "independently assess... [and] provide an unvarnished, objective perspective to DOD's senior civilian and military leadership" (See p. 22 of the CNAS report.) is the penultimate example of the report's fundamentally cosmetic nature. The participants that CNAS proposes for these independent Red Teams would come from the Joint Chiefs, the office of the secretary of defense, the special operations command, and federally funded research centers, presumably such as the Rand Corporation, which by the way is largely funded by the Air Force, the Army and the secretary of defense. There is no generically independent advice to come from those in-house entities; it is a simple feed-back loop, an incestuous one. Furthermore, each of these entities has always had, and has exercised, the standing -- collectively and individually -- to advise DOD decision-makers, and yet here we are calling for more of the same.

The concept of a Red Team to open DOD decision-makers' eyes to the consequences of their ongoing decisions and to advise real alternatives is an excellent and needed concept; CNAS's notion, however, is too transparent to be taken seriously. It is a "change" that means no change; it should be understood as conceptually identical to CNAS' thinking on F-35s, drones and the budget.

There is much more in both the CNAS and CSIS reports, and more to come from CSIS in November. And, there will be more reports from more think tanks: all of them seeking to influence decisions in November and shortly thereafter. Some of them, like the CNAS report and what seems likely from CSIS, will be old wine in new bottles, and it will be behind opaque glass to mask how much wine is really there. The majority of policy-makers in Washington from both parties will almost certainly welcome the vintage; the familiar taste of ersatz budget restraint and weapons reform without the any real content goes down easily with them.

The capital city badly needs better than this.