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Beware: Esper’s defense ‘savings’ are mystery meat, not top-sirloin cuts.

In the early 1940s, President Roosevelt initiated the Lend-Lease Act to deliver crucial supplies and armaments to allied nations fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Notable among these supplies was a large proportion of the nation’s domestic meat supply. With tens of thousands of Americans not yet deployed overseas, a protein deficit suddenly emerged: Offal, or organ meats such as liver, heart, kidney, and stomach were still widely available, but were as unpopular as ever. How could Americans be convinced of their palatability?

As detailed in his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg describes the strategy developed by the Committee on Food Habits, which was established by the government to identify “cultural barriers” that dissuaded Americans from consuming organ meat. Their solution? Familiarity: “make the foods look, taste, and smell as similar as possible to what their families expected to see on the dinner table.” 

With these conclusions in hand, the government launched an advertising and recipe blitz aimed at the housewives of America. Their strategy was a smashing success, with organ meat consumption rising 33 percent during the war. 

Today, within the halls of the Pentagon, another campaign to convince Americans to alter their “consumption” habits has been underway since the summer of 2019. As Defense One reported in January 2020,  Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, having taken command of the Pentagon in July 2019, signaled his intent to initiate “reform through focused prioritization.” Just as organ meat was incorporated into familiar meatloaf during World War II, today the status quo of record defense spending and near-peer competition justifying budgets is being sold as “reform and prioritization” to make it more appetizing to the jaded masses who have grown tired of the standard menu. 

And while writers such as Mackenzie Eaglen of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute have offered favorable reviews of Esper’s fare, the proof is truly in the pudding.

Eaglen grades Esper using the same categories outlined in his original reform memo: dollars, people, and tasks. Beginning with dollars, Eaglen lauds the secretary with “high marks” for his adaptation of a “night court” review process he instituted while Secretary of the Army in 2018 and early 2019. These reviews have generated a “respectable” savings of $5 billion as of December 2019. And while $5 billion is indeed a lot of money, it represents less than 1 percent of the FY20 defense budget of $738 billion. What exactly did the Secretary have in mind when beginning these reviews in August of 2019?

The reviews required Pentagon offices to “outline programs they are working on.” These were then “cross-checked with other parts of the Defense Department to see if there’s duplication of effort.” According to Esper, the Pentagon’s Fourth Estate, comprising 27 agencies and responsible for a $106 billion chunk of the budget, was slated to be first on the chopping block for reduction. Money saved from these departments could then be used for President Trump’s National Security Strategy with its focus on great-power competition. Specifically, according to Defense One, “artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, directed energy, and 5G networks.”

But the plan hid a critical detail: the reforms would not be a “single, large savings plan,” but rather executed on a “rolling basis.” And finally, these “savings” would not be realized until approved by Congress in the FY21 defense budget. In other words, they are nothing more than a recommendation to reduce next year’s budget. And yet these developments, a hypothetical savings of less than 1 percent of the defense budget after months of internal review, somehow rate a “high mark.” 

The culinary equivalent of what chef Esper has done is to direct his service chiefs and senior leaders — call them his sous-chefs — not to change the menu or even reduce the portions being served, but point to a few meager scraps to be trimmed. They have been directed to list these on the menu as “reform.” 

Why the obfuscation? 

Three words: National Security Strategy. The NSS, written primarily by then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster in his early days in the Trump administration and favorably described by the Council on Foreign Relations, “reads as if it could have been issued by any of Trump’s immediate predecessors.” Over the last several years, as we all know, there has been an exodus of former generals and officials who oppose Trump’s worldview, most notably former Defense Secretary James Mattis and McMaster. But despite their exit, the NSS remains in effect, devoid of any alterations or revisions, and is being carried to the end zone in a sneak play by Secretary Esper to achieve, in his own words, “full, irreversible implementation.”

Esper’s own reform memorandum focuses closely on “where and how to employ” the troops to ensure they are conducting “high-payoff activities in line with our strategic priorities,” and instructs the DoD to “prioritize those activities that contribute most to the readiness and lethality of the force.” 

While his aspirations sound plausible and achievable, until there is a significant shift in spending or strategy, the rubber won’t meet the road when it comes to the readiness of the force. A large military budget, which the Swamp always uses as the starting premise for defense strategy, then requires enemies to justify said budgets. Creating enemies out of near- peer competitors like Russia and China then necessitates a corresponding military capacity and capability to meet them on a level or advantageous playing field: on the ground, in the air, across the oceans, and now, even in space. 

In the past this meant scale, an Army of 480,000 soldiers and an Air Force that required 1,763 F-35A fighters at $82 million a pop. Today that means even more investments in high tech as mentioned above. “This is expensive,” in the words of the Secretary himself. In other words, if the military spends the majority of its funding on its people, gear, and maintenance, there isn’t a lot left over to buy bullets and bombs to practice with. This writer isn’t alone in that analysis.

The Marine Corps’ latest commandant, General David Berger, echoed this sentiment this spring when he said “we have to get smaller to get better.” His plans call for an unprecedented reduction in the size and scale of his force while increasing those that can better focus on great-power competition, namely with China. But is this approach a recipe to regain readiness, or a subtle play to place his service at the front of the buffet line that serves those willing to counter China? Put differently, is General Berger asking for more money by shrinking his force but rebranding it as a tool for addressing China? It’s hard to say at this point, but several theories surrounding this approach were recently addressed at length in Responsible Statecraft. 

Then there is Secretary Esper’s plans to repurpose his “savings” by building a 500-ship Navy by 2045. With a fleet that currently stands at just under 300 ships, how the Navy will build, operate, man, train, and maintain 200 more with hypothetical “savings” is really anyone’s guess. As noted in a well-written rebuttal by John R. Kroger of the Aspen Institute, creating even a 355-ship Navy would require $30 billion for shipbuilding costs and $38 billion annually for maintenance. As Kroger said, “strategic planning is worthless unless it reflects fiscal reality.” 

Step back a bit and see that the Pentagon doesn’t really “do” large-scale savings plans. As the Quincy Institute’s Mark Perry pointed out in 2018, President Trump appointed John Gibson as the Pentagon’s first ever Chief Management Officer to cut waste and efficiently modernize the military. He proposed $125 billion in savings and cuts. After only seven months on the job, Secretary Mattisfired him for a “lack of performance.”  

Rumors say President Trump will fire Esper if Trump wins a second term. For a candidate that ran on reform, one could only hope the president has finally refined his palate enough to realize he is being fed pie in the sky.