Kendall: Money doesn’t grow on trees, even at the Pentagon

The Pentagon is making the case for an overhaul of its fleet, and according to Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall, the nuclear enterprise is at the front of the line. That is, if they can just figure out how to pay for it.

At the Air Force Association’s annual conference this week, Kendall delivered remarks that had been prepared by the Secretary of Defense, who had been pulled away at the last minute. The speech referred to the nuclear enterprise as, “the very foundation of U.S. national security.”

Driving the point home, Kendall repeated twice, “No capability we maintain is more important than our nuclear deterrent.”

Of course, Kendall and Hagel have reason to want to reassure the Air Force that nukes are a top priority, but Kendall’s speech leaves little room for interpretation.

Know that what you do every day is foundational to America’s national security and the top priority of the Department of Defense – the top priority of the Department of Defense.

Secretary Hagel wants you and our entire military to know that comes from him personally.

But paying for those upgrades will take more than reassurance. And there’s the rub. The Pentagon simply does not have enough resources to pay for its entire wish list of upgrades, both nuclear and conventional. And, perhaps surprisingly, Kendall acknowledges that fact, telling reporters that:

There’s been some conversation about that, but at the end of the day we have to find money to pay for these things one way or another, right? So changing the accounting system doesn’t really change that fundamental requirement. We still need the money and it has to come from somewhere.

Kendall’s bout of honesty comes on the heels of some speculation that world events might allow for some wiggle room in the DOD’s budget – or at least OCO. But the acknowledgement of the budget challenges to come is significant nonetheless.

At a time when the Air Force is in need of a multitude of updates more relevant to the current threat environment, the issue is likely much greater than Kendall lets on. The true cost of focusing myopically on the nuclear enterprise is that it will leave other programs to starve in its wake.