Keeping tabs on the Pentagon

Keeping tabs on the Pentagon
© Francis Rivera

If you want to find out how much the Pentagon’s military operations cost, Todd Harrison is your go-to guy.

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Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), tracks defense spending, and he estimated the possible costs of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) before the Pentagon released comprehensive spending figures.

A September report Harrison produced estimated that the war could cost the U.S. between $2.4 billion and $22 billion per year depending on the number of ground troops and intensity of air operations.

 Surprisingly, reporters’ inquiries drive him to compile these reports. Harrison said it’s unfortunate the Pentagon doesn’t figure money into the initial debate as a new conflict unfolds. 

 “Too often, I think the Pentagon, when they’re asked questions like this, they take a very long time to respond. That’s because they have to go through their bureaucratic organization to work up estimates. By the time they come out with a number, it’s too late to factor into the debate,” he said. “I think that’s a shame.”

Harrison spends his time studying and analyzing defense spending and frequently confers with Capitol Hill and the Pentagon on issues like military readiness, budgeting and the effects of sequestration.

He produced a report in August on military readiness that has already gained some traction. Harrison advised the Defense Department and Congress to rethink how readiness — the performance and preparedness of forces — is measured and resourced.

“When we hear about this readiness crisis from senior military leaders, I look at them and say ‘prove it,’ ” he said. “‘Show me how the performance of our forces have been degraded.’ They don’t have metrics of that.”

Senior officials have reached out to him to further explore his proposed ideas on readiness, Harrison said, except for the most relevant office: the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

Part of the problem, Harrison has noticed, is the Pentagon doesn’t like change.

“The military is an interesting beast,” he said. “They don’t like you looking over their shoulders. They don’t like people giving them ideas about how they can do their jobs better. And they certainly don’t like people questioning their professional military judgment.”

“It’s really hard to get folks in the military to rethink anything,” he said, adding that it’s especially challenging as an outsider at a think tank to break through that resistance.

Even if military insiders don’t embrace Harrison’s ideas, he said, his recommendations could still inspire new thinking.

“I think a success for me is if my ideas stir up other new thoughts and ideas in other people. They don’t need to agree with me, but I want to get them thinking how they can do their job better or do something differently that would ultimately improve our national security.”

Harrison arrived at specializing in defense after taking somewhat of an unconventional route.

Originally from Mississippi, Harrison received a graduate degree in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He began his professional career at a firm that analyzed cellphone data, then moved on to a defense firm and later to Booz Allen Hamilton, before moving to the CSBA.

Before Harrison’s career took off, he spent five years in the Air Force Reserve, where he rose to the rank of captain.

“What was really useful for me was understanding the Air Force from the inside — understanding the culture and the people and what really motivates people out in the working levels and units. I really enjoyed the camaraderie with the folks ... learned a lot of great leadership lessons from my commander.”

While he spends time making trips to the Pentagon and speaking to reporters, Harrison’s work is fueled by hard numbers.

“A good day for me is spending a lot of time at my desk in front of spreadsheets, reports and looking through data. That’s the core of my work,” he said. “I try my best not to rely on what people tell me. What people tell you, I have found, is often not the whole truth. Don’t pay attention to talking points. Go and find a document.”

Besides his regular job, Harrison teaches a course on the defense budget at George Washington University.

Harrison predicts the next Congress will produce a budget agreement similar to the one reached by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayTexas abortion law creates 2022 headache for GOP Top Democrat says he'll push to address fossil fuel tax breaks in spending bill Faith leaders call on Congress to lead the response to a global pandemic MORE (D-Wash.), his Senate counterpart, in December 2013 that relieved sequestration.

Under the worst-case scenario, the GOP-controlled Congress might not reach a budget deal and the sequester cuts could return if the defense budget cap isn’t raised and Congress allocates more money than the cap.

But another series of automatic spending cuts might not be too detrimental, Harrison pointed out, because the Pentagon can shift funding around as it did in 2013.

“A lot of the predictions for dire consequences, those seem to haven’t come true. I think that has led a lot of people to believe that they were just crying wolf. In fact, [then Deputy Defense Secretary] Ashton Carter went to the Hill talking about sequestration. He said literally ‘the wolf is at the door.’ Poor choice of words.”

If sequester cuts return, Harrison said the Pentagon could again shift funding to its safety valve: the overseas contingency operations fund. The war fund, as it is known, has been used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now in the fight against ISIS, and it falls outside the budget caps.

With more than a decade under his belt in Washington, Harrison acknowledged the political environment has become more contentious.

Since 2010 and 2011, the budget process has “broken down completely,” he said, and lawmakers aren’t following the guidelines Congress set for itself in the 1970s.

“That makes it hard to have a rich, informative, productive debate about important questions like the proper level of defense spending,” Harrison said.

“That, I think, is the thing that’s been missing and hurting the most.”