An Expert View: The Need for Long Term Thinking

posted by BGen Stephen A. Cheney USMC (Ret.) on January 7, 2013 at 7:00 am

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Strategy-Small1After lawmakers and the Obama administration hit the brakes and kept the country from going over the fiscal cliff at the close of 2012, Washington lurches forward with a new two-month deadline in yet another last-ditch attempt to avoid broad federal spending cuts.

We need to steady ourselves, rather than shoot from the hip again.  If we just focus on applying more budget Band-Aids to get through the frenzied weeks ahead we will miss an opportunity to right-size our federal spending– starting with national security.

Our military deserves the nation’s full support, which means honestly and fairly preparing it for a fiscal future that reflects reality, not wishful thinking.

Over the last 10 years, we have almost doubled the DOD base budget to well over half a trillion dollars ($297B base in 2001 and is requested $525B in 2013), and that does not included the “overseas contingency operations” spending that pays for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.

At the same time our federal debt has exploded; we now owe over $16 trillion dollars. And with a deficit of over $1 trillion a year, it’s getting worse.

The answers though are not simple.  As we have seen from Europe, harsh short-term austerity programs are counter-productive.  Not only do they slow economic growth (or create recessionary pressures), they can increase the actual debt and deficits.

We cannot slash and burn today and expect to prosper tomorrow. Nobody is served by panic or cynicism during times of crisis. As noted in our American Competitiveness Report – we need to think in decades, not months, when it comes to economic health.

 

So what should this mean for the Department of Defense and other related agencies?

Almost everyone agrees that sequestration – effectively cutting 10% from throughout the federal government — is not good.

Over the last few weeks there has been some hash rhetoric on what sequestration would mean.  It would not mean mass layoffs, nor would it mean deep cuts in programs.  It cuts the actual dollar amount spent, but it cuts blindly – the good, the bad and the ugly. And in doing so we could easily find ourselves in a situation where cutting spending now costs us much more in the future.

We need to reframe the debate and commit to keeping the long-term implications of the quick policy fixes today.

What is most troubling is how such moves are down without real consideration of America’s strategy. What we are really talking about is a long-term vision for America and the instruments it uses to advance its interests.

For many years now, ASP and its Board Members, have argued for a hard look at our national security, and a realistic view on what America should and should not do. This includes how much can we afford to spend on our military, and what alternatives exist or are needed to achieve the same national-security priorities through non-military means.

There are some key steps the Administration and Congress could take straight away:

  • Individual line-item sequestration could be removed.  This could allow DOD to allocate resources in a thought out framework.
  • Investment in long term platforms and infrastructure could be separated out from a day-to-day cost-based budget. This could allow large cost assets to planned and understood over the long term. For example many large programs such as bombers and aircraft caries can last over 60 years, yet their costs are squeezed into just a few years – as such we cannot truly understand their costs.
  • Develop a 10 to 15 year concept of what operations the US will participate in (and more importantly will not). This will allow DOD planners and defense contracts to allocate resources effectively.
  • Reduce (and then eliminate) spending on the weapons and programs we no longer need. The Cold War has been over a long time, yet we keep spending billions on weapons designed to be aimed at the former Soviet Union.  An ultimate example of this is our outdated nuclear weapons programs
  • Support the Defense Industrial Base by investing in science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM). This means supporting our universities, reforming immigration, and support new technology and programs over the long term.  This should include new energy programs that strengthen our security.

And finally:

  • Think AND act long term.  This means understanding that the present DOD budget and appropriations process is broken.  The DOD needs a budget that lasts more that 9 months!  We need to move to 5-, 10-, 15-year plans.  Yes, that will mean a radical change in how Congress and the Administration works.  But in the end, if we are going to solve our economic and budget issues, we need radical change.

 

 

Check out more of ASP’s work on these issues in our report on American Competitiveness: an Issue of National Security

 

 

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