Defense Appropriations Bill 2013: Congress Must Make the Smart Choice

This coming week, the House will bring its defense appropriations bill to the floor for debate and a vote. At the same time, a behind-the-scenes effort to temporarily delay defense spending reductions by replacing the first year of sequestration is gaining momentum in the Senate. And so both sides of the Hill — and the political pundits — are consumed by one question: Should we cut defense spending and by how much? 

That question was already answered last year with the Budget Control Act — legislation that sets federal spending levels through 2021. Unquestionably, the law is the result of a failure of American political leadership. Unable to come to a compromise through a serious discussion about budgeting needs within the federal government, our elected leaders instead resorted to the threat of automatic cuts to create pressure for a future agreement.

Defense spending questions were stifled within the overall budget debate. Ignored were the questions we should have been asking about defense spending: How do we fulfill our current commitments while developing capabilities for future threats? What capable partners — from U.S. government agencies to allies — will the military have to partner with in future theaters? And how should we allocate resources to meet our objectives?

Regardless, Congress and the Obama administration have agreed on defense spending levels through 2021. Both parties should honor their word instead of wasting time re-debating agreed upon funding levels. The Defense Department has planned to do so by shrinking the force, relying on new technologies, and proposing two rounds of base closings (a proposal which has run into significant opposition in Congress).

The U.S. will still spend $5.86 trillion over the next decade on defense, slightly more than the $5.83 trillion we spent on defense in the preceding decade — a decade in which we fought two wars and defense spending more than doubled. As Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA), Ranking Member on the House Armed Services Committee, said, only in Washington can an increase in spending be considered a “cut.”

True (and devastating) cuts would come in the form of sequestration. Under sequestration, defense spending would not return to FY12 levels until FY18. Furthermore, the President may be compelled to reduce defense training and equipment resources in order to protect salaries, housing, and other basic needs for military personnel from sequestration cuts. According to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, this would amount to a “hollow force.”

But a prosperous American future still requires fiscal responsibility, and defense must help in that effort. According to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, the greatest threat to U.S. national security is our national debt. And, as the entity responsible for ensuring American security, the Defense Department has an obligation to contribute to fiscal austerity.

Just as we cannot balance our budget through the Defense Department alone, the military cannot keep America safe on its own. The Defense Department needs strong, able partners to confront 21st century threats. Foreseeable future confrontations will be shaped by non-state, asymmetric threats and weapons technology proliferation, not large-scale land wars. The U.S. military cannot meet all of these challenges alone because it cannot and should not be in all places at all times.

The defense spending debate began with — and has remained stuck on — the question of “How much?” Instead, we should be focusing on how to fulfill our current commitments while investing in new capabilities the Defense Department will need in the 21st century, and how other government agencies and allies can chip in to buttress the Defense Department’s efforts.

Only when we settle on answers to these types of questions can we begin to understand how much we need to spend on national defense. Budgeting should be driven by strategy. If the focus of the debate remains on the top-line spending level, we could spend one trillion dollars per year without keeping America safe just as easily as we could under-resource our forces relative to their missions.

Instead, we should be focusing on efficiently and effectively matching our defense resources to 21st century threats.