Former SecDef Gates and the Future of Defense Reform (Fingers Crossed)

The Army JLENS blimp fiasco, the $43 million Afghan gas station, the fumbling F-35 program, the NDAA veto, government shutdowns, the Syrian train-and-equip program, etc. These are just some of the issues that have come up in recent times that highlight the desperate need to work towards defense reform in the United States. And the work should start now.

Ash Carter to Defend President’s Budget Cap Busting FY16 Request

Ash Carter to Defend President’s Budget Cap Busting FY16 Request

Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter’s confirmation hearing is set for the first week of February. Coinciding with Carter’s confirmation, on February 2, the president will send Congress his fiscal year 2016 budget request. One of Mr. Carter’s first tasks as Chuck Hagel’s replacement will be to defend the President’s FY 2016 budget request – a document on which Mr. Carter has presumably had little influence.

Hagel Is Out; Big Spending Is In

The President announced Monday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has resigned, just days after announcing his commitment to increase spending for the U.S. nuclear enterprise by $7.5 billion dollars over the next five years. For a top Pentagon official with a habitually good record on nuclear non-proliferation, this was a pretty bad last move. And it could be a sign of things to come.

William Hartung, the Director of Arms and Security Project at Center for International Policy, posed an important question in an article for Huffington Post this week: what if Hagel had resigned for a reason? Hartung posits that Hagel’s resignation was “a missed opportunity to put our security policy on a sounder footing at a time of increasing uncertainty.”  Hagel certainly could have resigned ‘on principle,’ in protest of the administration’s drift toward a more hawkish foreign policy. But it doesn’t look like he did.

Helene Cooper of the New York Times posits that Obama was too close with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Secretary of State John Kerry to give them the axe; Hagel was the easy pick. In times of trouble, the sad truth is that a scapegoat sometimes has to take the blame. But regardless of the reason for Hagel’s dismissal, a firmer truth remains: a shift is taking place in Washington that’s likely to lead to higher spending.

Hagel assumed office in February 2013 at a time of projected peace. He was brought on to oversee the end of the war in Afghanistan and help trim down the Pentagon budget. Now, whether we like it or not, the U.S. is headed back into war in the Middle East and has revised its exit plan for Afghanistan.  

Glen Thrush of POLITICO writes that Hagel didn’t see himself as “the kind of gung-ho, wartime consigliere Obama needed as he recalibrates his national security strategy to deal with a new round of conflict in the Middle East.” It follows that a new leader in the Pentagon would be part of a larger strategic pivot towards ramped up military engagement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

With an increased wartime spending request and a larger base budget request on the way, the Obama administration seems primed to amp up the pressure on Congress to increase Pentagon spending, a move that could ultimately bust the budget caps.

While there is no obvious front-runner to replace Hagel, Michéle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed have already pulled their hats out of the ring.  That leaves current and former Deputy Defense Secretaries Robert Work and Ashton Carter. Both men are considered technocrats with experience maneuvering the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. But their mission at the helm of the Pentagon, should they accept, will largely be dictated by a strategy already set in motion by the White House.  

So far, that strategy looks like spend, spend, spend.

Defense Secretary Hagel Needs to Consult Senator Hagel More Often

In a press conference last Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his commitment to revamping America’s nuclear weapons program after findings from two separate reviews revealed institutional failures such as weak leadership, antiquated and sparse equipment and exceptionally low morale.

“The internal and external reviews I ordered show that consistent lack of investment and support for nuclear forces of far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses,” said Hagel. He also pointed to the existence of systematic problems such as a culture of over and inadequate inspection, poor communication and disconnect between DoD and service leadership.

An example of the derelict state of the nuclear program is a lack of what the Department of Defense Report calls “mission ownership.” There appears to be a disparity in passion and dedication to the nuclear deterrent mission among the service men and women performing the day-to-day mission and the higher-ups in the Department of Defense. According to the report, “[they] are well aware of the public declarations by former (and, occasionally, current) senior national security leaders and others who question or deny the continuing relevance of the nuclear forces or segments of the nuclear forces.”

Even the men and women running the show are unenthused about the triad.

Hagel’s vision for an improved U.S. nuclear program includes a 10 percent increase in Pentagon nuclear spending over the next five years. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the Pentagon spends between $15 billion and $16 billion dollars on nuclear programs each year; 10% over five years is at least an increase of $7.5 billion dollars.

Hagel also highlighted the Defense Department’s commitment to the President’s policy to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons on our nation’s security strategy.”

Hagel, however, went beyond his brief in saying that America’s nuclear weapons program is the “DoD’s highest priority mission.” In actuality, nuclear weapons serve one purpose only: to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and our allies.

Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to top U.S. security issues. Are nuclear weapons relevant to the ISIL threat in Iraq and Syria? Nope. How about in winding down our military involvement in Afghanistan? Nuclear weapons play no role in that either. The Russians absorbed Crimea and are intervening in Ukraine. Again, U.S. nuclear weapons did not stop the aggression.

Our nuclear weapons are irrelevant even in security dilemmas with nuclear-armed countries! For instance, in the increasing competition between U.S. and China for dominance in Asia, nuclear weapons play no role.

There are other reasons to be skeptical of Hagel’s proposed reforms; the dichotomy of increasing funding for a program whose purpose the DoD hopes to diminish is a bit contradictory.  Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, for example, feels that “Throwing money after problems may fix some technical issues but it is unlikely to resolve the dissolution that must come from sitting in a silo home in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come.”

Clearly there are administrative and organizational steps needed to be taken to deal with declining morale among the service men and women dealing with our nuclear force, especially considering the recent missileer cheating scandal and reported neglect among senior leadership of the decaying forces.

But neither Hagel nor the two reviews address the top unspoken question: why should the United States spend up to a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to build new nuclear submarines, land-based ICBM missiles, long-range bombers and modernized nuclear weapons?

The United States requires a well-maintained nuclear force. But it can do so with a much smaller number of nuclear weapons and even without the land-based leg of the triad.

Who says? Why, that same Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who, as co-author of a 2012 nuclear policy commission report, wrote:

“No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face – threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict- driven mass migration of refugees, epidemics or climate change… In fact, nuclear weapons have on balance arguably become more a part of the problem than any solution.”

Too bad the new Hagel did not consult the old Hagel.

Panetta’s Loose Words Warrant Washing His Mouth Out With Soap

This month, former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta – he of minimal loyalty to his bosses — published his memoir “Worthy Fights,” in which he criticizes Obama’s national security strategies and in particular how the administration has dealt with Iraq and Syria.  

In his book, Panetta decries the “Red line” debacle of 2012 when President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line for us.” Panetta suggests that Obama’s failure to enforce the red line, when chemical weapons really were used a year later, undermined U.S. credibility amongst Syrians and the rest of the world.

Ironically, Panetta’s book makes a serious semantic blunder of its own when Northeast Asian news outlets took a keen interest in this sentence:

“If North Korea moved across the border, our war plans called for the senior American general on the peninsula to take command of all U.S. and South Korean forces and defend south Korea – including by the use of nuclear weapons, if necessary.”

The sentence garnered attention from South Korean media and even prompted a response from Pyongyang, which promised to bolster their nuclear deterrent to counter the U.S. policies toward North Korea.

World order hanging in the balance of your every word is pretty difficult, isn’t it, Mr. Panetta?

The importance of rhetoric cannot be overplayed. Need you be reminded of the infamous “16 words” (“the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”) spoken by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address that were used to justify war in Iraq.

Or Ronald Reagan’s joke before a Saturday radio address: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Panetta’s words are alarmist. Threatening the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional attack only heightens the importance of these weapons that should only serve as a nuclear deterrent.  

If there is a North Korean conventional attack on South Korea, the United States has ample non-nuclear means at its disposal to respond. According to Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard, Jr., Chair of the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, U.S. conventional weapons would be sufficient to defend South Korea from North Korean forces.

Gard writes, “Stopping the attack of poorly trained and ill-equipped North Korean forces does not require the use of nuclear weapons.”

He goes on to say, “Should North Korea be able to bypass the demilitarized zone by moving some troops by air or through tunnels into South Korea, an option that has been threatened, they obviously would have to be killed or captured by conventional means. Employing nuclear weapons in densely populated South Korea brings to memory the parallel concept of destroying a city in order to save it. And since the war plan for defense of South Korea envisions invading North Korea and seizing Pyongyang, the capitol, attacking the North with nuclear weapons would endanger our own troops, as well as causing massive casualties on the long-suffering North Korean population.

“There is no justification for threatening to break the generally accepted barrier between the use of conventional high explosive munitions and nuclear weapons in the defense of South Korea. The only practical utility of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter their use by other nations against our vital national interests and, by extension, against our allies,” concluded Gard.

Perhaps Panetta’s ill-considered words deserve the old bar of soap to the mouth treatment a la Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”  

In the Shadow of the Nuclear Modernization Mountain, Nuclear Weapons Budget Ripe for Savings

I’ve published a new piece on the Center homepage on Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s preview of the FY 2015 Pentagon budget request last week and the implications for nuclear weapons. Here’s the intro:

Last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey previewed the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Pentagon budget request. Additional details are not scheduled to be released until Tuesday (March 4), but the broad outlines of the request are already clear.

And despite cuts to many Pentagon programs, Hagel stated that the budget had “preserved all three legs of the nuclear triad and will make important investments to preserve a safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear force.”

Hagel announced a number of cost saving measures driven by the Congressional mandate to reduce military spending as part of an overall deficit reduction effort, including reducing the size of the Army, retiring the A-10 fleet of aircraft, reducing the planned buy of the Littoral Combat Ship, and modest reforms to the escalating and unsustainable growth in personnel compensation costs.

Yet the Pentagon either couldn’t find, or, more accurately, was unwilling to find, additional savings and thus proposed an unrealistic budget blueprint through FY 2019 that exceeds the Budget Control Act caps by $115 billion. The Pentagon also invited Congress to further inflate its coffers by proposing an additional $26 billion in spending for FY 2015 that didn’t make it into the formal budget submission. Without this additional funding, Hagel argued, “the military will still face significant readiness and modernization challenges next year.”

Given the requirement to find budget savings beyond current plans and also maintain the world’s finest military, the Pentagon should be prioritizing military programs that are the most critical to combatting the current threats we face, since every dollar spent on lower priority programs is a dollar that can’t be spent on more important needs.

It would therefore be puzzling if the Pentagon shields nuclear weapons from the chopping block in its budget request (which it largely appears to have done) – especially since our military leaders have already determined that we have more nuclear weapons than we need for our security. But just as the administration’s FY 2015 budget is divorced from reality, so too are its nuclear weapons spending plans.

Read the whole thing here. I’ll have more to say about the budget, particularly on the NNSA side, when the full details are released tomorrow.

Proposed Pentagon cuts could lead to bigger budgets in future years

As we approach the release of the Pentagon’s budget request, many questions remain, but one thing is certain – the request will be controversial, it will scare a lot of folks, and all of the hoopla might just work to the Pentagon’s advantage in future years.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Hagel delivered a major speech outlining his upcoming $496 billion budget request. This number excludes tens of billions in funding for the war in Afghanistan, as well as a $26 billion “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” that the President plans to ask Congress to make a little additional room for this year. The budget will be released in two pieces, with most major details on Tuesday, March 4 and supporting documents and details on March 11.

It has become clear in the week since Hagel’s speech that the Pentagon will also be preparing a separate, sequestration-level budget, in the event that Congress rejects the higher spending plan, but that’s not the budget the Defense Department plans to push. Rather, the plan that will be released on Tuesday will stick to the budget caps outlined in the Budget Control Act this year, then rise steadily over the next five years to include an additional $115 billion.

Hagel emphasized in his speech his view that while the cuts proposed for fiscal 2015 look difficult to implement, they would be far worse if the department was required to reduce spending in the outyears.

But that assumes the cuts the Pentagon has proposed for this year are allowed to take place. The $115 billion figure factors in savings from a theoretical Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round in 2017 that Congress will never permit, thereby understating the amount which the proposal exceeds sequestration limits. And that’s not the only Pentagon proposal that Congress is almost certain not to allow. Proposals to eliminate the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 Warthogs, cap pay raises for troops at 1 percent and freeze pay for general officers, and shrink the U.S. Army to pre-World War Two levels will all run up against steep opposition from Members of Congress who have opposed similar changes in the past.

The Pentagon’s proposal to cut the Army National Guard, which has a presence in every state and territory, has already incited fierce opposition among those members who intend to fight to ensure the cuts don’t go through.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, co-chairman of the Senate National Guard Caucus, argued this week that, “the Senate should not and cannot support a long-term plan that guts our citizen-soldier force.” Leahy was among a bipartisan group of 13 senators that has already written a letter to Hagel raising concerns about the proposed cuts.

While few would argue that sequestration is a useful mechanism (it was only put in place as a scare tactic to pressure lawmakers into making some tough choices about federal budget cuts) the Pentagon seems to be sticking to the same scare tactics they’ve used in the past, assuming that eventually they convince Congress to return to full funding levels.

So what does all of this mean? As the Pentagon raises the specter of the sequestration bogeyman once again, ideally, they’re hoping to kill the whole idea off once and for all. And given the unhappy alternative, Congress may just choose to go along, paving the way for a larger Pentagon budget in future years.