A tale of two budgets

It was the best of budgets, it was the worst of budgets,

it was the age of the pivot, it was the age of sequester,

it was a time for rebalancing, it was a time for rebuilding,

it was a budget of constraints, it was a budget of balance,

it was a budget of hard choices, it was a budget dead on arrival,

it was a budget that prioritized future capabilities, it was a budget that protected current capacity—in short, this budget was so conflicted and confused even its chief proponents could not explain it.

The FY 2015 defense budget submitted last week is unlike any budget before.  While top Pentagon leaders briefed many of the details in advance, it is now evident that the budget DoD submitted is not as they described.  While the budget is $115 billion more over the next five years than the budget caps set by Congress, that extra money does not fund the higher force levels Secretary Hagel and others said it would fund.  Instead, it cuts Army and Marine Corps active end strength to 420,000 and 175,000, respectively, and it does not fully fund 11 aircraft carriers for the Navy.

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The rhetoric does not match the reality because this budget is two conflicting budgets in one.  The two conflicting budgets are not the sequester-level budget and the $115 billion higher President’s budget.  The sequester-level budget, while talked about at length by Pentagon leaders, was not actually submitted to Congress. Rather, the two conflicting budgets are the one DoD presented in words and the very different budget it submitted in numbers.  The inconsistency between the words and the numbers provides a window into the uncertainty and lack of consensus within the Obama administration’s national security team.

When the White House approved an extra $115 billion above the budget caps for DoD, the Pentagon apparently built a budget that did not hold Army and Marine Corps end strength to 440-450,000 and 182,000 or fully fund the refueling and overhaul of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.  Instead, it spent the money on other priorities, such as modernization programs that ensure the military maintains its technological edge and has the right mix of capabilities for the future.  Last year’s Strategic Choices and Management Review framed this as a choice between near-term capacity and long-term capabilities.  Rightly or wrongly, this initial budget leaned more in the direction of long-term capabilities.

But something happened along the way because this is not the budget Defense Secretary Hagel previewed a week before its release.  In his speech, Hagel said the extra $115 billion above the budget caps in the president’s budget would “enable the Navy to maintain 11 carrier strike groups,” hold “Army end strength to a range of 440-450,00 soldiers,” and limit the Marine Corps “draw down to 182,000.”  The Quadrennial Defense Review, released the same day as the budget, confirms these force levels.

The president’s budget request, however, was not updated to reflect these higher force levels.  An asterisk buried deep in the DoD Comptroller’s budget overview briefing noted that the force levels in the president’s budget are 420,000 for the Army, 175,000 for the Marine Corps, and only 10 aircraft carriers for the Navy.  A memo from the Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox dated the day after the budget release confirmed this fact to the Service secretaries.

The question now is which budget should Congress consider: the budget submitted in numbers that cuts force levels more deeply and invests in capabilities for the future or the budget described in words that maintains higher force levels?  If it is the later, then how will DoD pay the roughly $20 billion bill for the higher force levels?  Since DoD already spent the extra $115 billion in the budget request, what programs will be delayed, canceled, or curtailed to pay for the higher force levels?  In short, the entire five-year budget plan is now a big question mark.

The ending of this Tale of Two Budgets is not yet written.  DoD should take note from Charles Dickens’ novel and make this a story of redemption and resurrection.  The Department appears to have condemned its own budget to the guillotine without offering a specific alternative in its place.  Rhetoric describing a higher force level is insufficient because it does not present Congress with the offsetting cuts such a force would require.  Instead of being abandoned, this budget request should, in the words of Dickens, be “recalled to life.”  DoD should amend the budget by specifying what it would cut in order to pay for the higher force levels it says it needs.  It is not likely to be easy or without controversy, but this is exactly the kind of debate the Congress and the nation should be having.

Harrison is a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).