Follow us on social

DOD budget reform panel's elephant in the room: Bad strategy

DOD budget reform panel's elephant in the room: Bad strategy

As long as the US maintains policies centered around global dominance, how the Pentagon spends its money won’t matter

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

A Pentagon reform panel almost entirely comprised of industry insiders has suggested that the department scrap its budgeting system.

In its place, the group unsurprisingly proposed that the Defense Department implement a new system that the panel considers better suited to “embrace changes” so that the Pentagon can “respond effectively to emerging threats” and leverage technological advancements.

Congress created the Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution Reform to evaluate and improve the Pentagon’s notoriously cumbersome acquisition and budgeting processes. After two years of study, the panel concluded that China’s rise and rapid technological innovation worldwide require a complete transformation of the Pentagon’s approach to defense resourcing. But revamping the budgeting process alone won’t address the root causes of Pentagon dysfunction.

The Pentagon is more focused on spending money (quickly and more efficiently) than it is on rationalizing spending decisions with coherent strategic thinking. Competition among military services makes matters all the worse. In Pentagon jargon, the military struggles with “jointness” — the idea that the military operates better as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. But jointness requires a lot of thoughtful planning, collaboration, and strategic trade offs on the part of Pentagon leadership. Not everything is a strategic need and priority, and it’s Pentagon leadership’s responsibility to make those determinations.

The reform panel acknowledged the Pentagon’s haphazard spending habits, but it didn’t critically evaluate U.S. strategic thinking in any of its forms: the National Security Strategy, the Defense Strategy, the Military Strategy, or the classified Defense Planning Guidance — the latter of which is supposed to clarify the Pentagon’s “goals, priorities, and objectives” within fiscal constraints and on an annual basis. A critical assessment of U.S. military posture and the thinking behind it was beyond the scope of the panel’s work. Congress tasked the group with assessing how strategy informs budgetary decisions at the Pentagon, with the ultimate goal of improving the department’s ability to operationalize U.S. strategies through more efficient acquisition and budgeting.

To that end, the reform panel conducted hundreds of interviews with Pentagon staff, congressional personnel, industry representatives, academics, and federal researchers. It found that the Pentagon’s rank and file staff lack clarity on the Pentagon’s strategic priorities and objectives. National strategies are too high-level to inform resource allocation on a programmatic level, and the defense secretary’s Defense Planning Guidance is similarly ambiguous. The reform panel wrote that it’s “often a lengthy prose, consensus-driven document that does not make hard choices and lacks explicit linkages to prioritized goals, timeframes, risk assessments, and resource allocations.” As a result, lower-level Pentagon staff are forced to make decisions far above their pay-grade.

Lack of clarity from Pentagon leadership burns out staff and leads to “lower quality” and “inconsistent” decisions, as well as an overreliance on civilian and contractor staff to conduct strategic analysis. The reform panel made a number of recommendations intended to improve the Defense Planning Guidance and increase the Pentagon’s capacity for strategic analysis of the department’s objectives and priority missions, force size and structure, resource availability and more.

The panel correctly identified many issues with Pentagon budgeting, like insufficient capacity for strategic analysis and difficulty incorporating joint needs into the budgeting process. In total, the panel made 28 recommendations to address these challenges by overhauling Pentagon acquisition and budgeting processes, with particular emphasis on fostering innovation and adaptability to “effectively respond to evolving threats” as well as “unanticipated events.” But ultimately, the panel’s recommendations are designed to better execute what are often flawed strategic decisions grounded in “yes, and” thinking.

The panel’s final report comes at a time when Congress and the administration are struggling to balance America’s ever growing security commitments (not all obligations) with its substantial, but ultimately finite resources. And while the panel’s report will likely have profound (and variable) impacts on defense policy for years to come, it shouldn’t just grease the wheels of a machine destined to fail.

America’s war machine cannot go on forever. If the United States is concerned about great power competition, the White House should reconsider enduring global dominance. It promotes an ever growing national security budget — which, no matter how you dress it up or smooth it over — is not the jobs-producer Congress and the administration make it out to be. About half of annual military spending goes to corporations that profit off the United States meddling where it shouldn’t, for as long as possible. If economic resiliency is the foundation of military strength, we probably shouldn’t put so many eggs in arms makers’ baskets.

Strategically, sinking more and more money into an unaccountable Pentagon with a lengthy track record of wasting taxpayer money on weapons that don’t work (or that the military doesn’t even need) only hurts military readiness — and thus, America’s ability to protect itself and support allies when it counts. The pursuit of enduring global dominance serves corporations more than anything else.

So while some of the reform panel’s recommendations may ameliorate enduring challenges in the Pentagon’s acquisition and budgeting processes, the panel’s impact is limited by U.S. strategic thinking. Recommendations aside, one can hope that the panel’s findings alone will prompt a serious reconsideration of America’s strategic decisions — from funding a state committing plausible genocide to allocating more resources on preparing for a war with China than on preventing one. You can revamp the acquisition and budgeting process time and again, but if the inputs are the same, the output will be too.

Andrew Angelov via shutterstock.com

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex
Blinken rocks out on a road to nowhere

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken performs "Rockin' in the Free World" with members of The 1999 band at the Barman Dictat bar as he visits Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 14, 2024. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Pool via REUTERS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Blinken rocks out on a road to nowhere

Europe

Last night Secretary of State Blinken played Neil Young’s bitterly ironic protest song, “Rockin' in the Free World” in a Kyiv bar. His speech Tuesday laying out the U.S. plan for a “Free, Secure, and Prosperous Future for Ukraine” was full of ironies as well, although he’d prefer that we be oblivious to those too.

After almost two and a half years of war, the speech announced a “stay the course” approach for Washington’s Ukraine policy. Rather than use the recent $60 billion aid package to lay the groundwork for a feasible plan to end the conflict, the speech promised continued U.S. support for unconditional victory and continued efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO, one of the issues that helped to trigger the war in the first place.

keep readingShow less
$320M US military pier to open for business, but storms ahead

US military releases photos of pier to deliver aid to Gaza (Reuters)

$320M US military pier to open for business, but storms ahead

QiOSK

UPDATE, 5/17: As of early Friday, the U.S. military said the first shipments of aid have been delivered onto the Gaza beach via the new pier project. The initial delivery included food bars for 11,000 people, therapeutic food for 7,200 malnourished children, and hygiene kits for 30,000 people, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. The British government said it had sent 8,400 temporary shelters made up of plastic sheeting. Officials did not say how or when it would be delivered by World Food Program and aid partners into the strip.


keep readingShow less
Trump's big idea: Deploy assassination teams to Mexico

Soldiers stand outside the Altiplano high security prison where Mexican drug gang leader Ovidio Guzman, the 32-year-old son of jailed kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is imprisoned in Almoloya de Juarez, State of Mexico, Mexico January 7, 2023. REUTERS/Luis Cortes

Trump's big idea: Deploy assassination teams to Mexico

North America

The opioid crisis in the United States shows no sign of abating. Mexican drug cartels are making more money than ever before while fueling the deaths of more than a hundred thousand Americans every year. Overdose deaths in the United States quadrupled between 2002 and 2022. Law enforcement appears overwhelmed and helpless.

It is little wonder, then, that extreme measures are being contemplated to ease the suffering. Planning for the most extreme of measures — use of military force to combat the flow of drugs — is apparently moving forward and evolving. It is an idea that has wedged itself into former President Trump’s head, and now he’s reportedly fine-tuning the idea toward possibly sending kill teams into Mexico to take out drug lords..

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest