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Pentagon Strategy Outstrips Its Budget Process

After slow staff-up, Defense Department is trying to make up for lost time

The Pentagon will be waiting another budget year to fully match its strategy to its fiscal requests.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Pentagon will be waiting another budget year to fully match its strategy to its fiscal requests.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Pentagon is churning out a frenzy of strategy documents that bolster President Donald Trump’s calls for a massive — and pricey — military buildup that includes new weaponry and more troops. The department’s own budget process, however, has not yet caught up.

On Friday, the Defense Department rolled out the National Defense Strategy, coming on the heels of the National Security Strategy and a leaked draft of the Nuclear Posture Review. These documents detail policies that come with hefty price tags, such as surpassing China and Russia in fiercely competitive areas like cyberspace and outer space.

But it could be another year before the Pentagon figures out how to pay for many of these priorities.

Defense budgets, like aircraft carriers, can’t turn on a dime. The process of drafting the 2019 budget started a year ago, at the outset of the new administration. But Trump’s ability to leave a lasting mark on Pentagon spending has been hindered by his slowness to name the political appointees who help turn policy into real budgetary priorities.

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Because of the long lead time for defense budgets, a new administration’s second budget request usually is the one that first reflects its national security policies. And that typically coincides with the release of a major review of defense strategy.

In releasing the strategy, Defense Secretary James Mattis bemoaned Congress’ handling of the defense budget and called on lawmakers to give the department predictable funding so it can carry out the strategy.

“No strategy can long survive without necessary funding and the stable, predictable budgets required to defend America,” Mattis told an audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “For too long, we have asked our military to stoically carry a ‘success at any cost’ attitude, as they work tirelessly to accomplish the mission with inadequate and misaligned resources simply because the Congress could not maintain regular order.”

But Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has already downplayed expectations, suggesting that the much-vaunted buildup would have to wait for the 2020 budget.

Speaking with reporters last month, Shanahan said the 2019 proposal will be “a step up,” but the Pentagon will work hard to make sure the 2020 budget “is the masterpiece.”

“We had to build up ’19 concurrently with doing the NDS,” he said. “Imagine trying to do those in parallel and adjusting in real time. We did a lot of that.” For the next budget cycle, the strategy will be firmly planted in the forefront of planners’ minds, he said.

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The 2020 budget is “probably the biggest step we can take to make sure we can’t unwind the strategy,” Shanahan said. “This is where many of the bets, in terms of innovation and some of the new technology, will take place.”

What Shanahan didn’t say was that key officials who help translate policy positions into budget decisions — including Shanahan himself, as well as the Pentagon’s policy chief, comptroller and director of the powerful Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation — had no Senate-confirmed appointee for significant portions of 2017.

The Senate confirmed comptroller David Norquist on May 25, Shanahan as deputy secretary on July 18, Robert Daigle as CAPE director on Aug. 1, and John Rood as undersecretary for policy on Jan. 3.

The policy post, in particular, is an influential role that helps shape the Pentagon’s plans. President George W. Bush had Douglas Feith, who stayed in the position for four years, in place by July 16 of his first year, while Michèle Flournoy, Obama’s first undersecretary of Defense for policy, took office less than three weeks after the inauguration.

“It is possible to do a pretty decent job at developing a strategy and a budget that are synchronized,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is just a natural consequence of not filling positions until late in the first year.”

The Obama administration released its first Quadrennial Defense Review in November 2009, less than 10 months after taking office. The 2011 budget request came on Feb. 1 of the following year and matched the administration’s funding priorities to its policies. Four years later, the QDR and the defense budget were released on the same day in March.

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That doesn’t mean the budgets and policy are always in sync, Harrison said. In 2014, the Obama administration called for personnel levels that did not match the forces funded in the accompanying budget request because of a late-in-the-game decision that didn’t make the budget deadline.

But by pushing the bulk of the buildup until the next budget, the Trump administration is losing another year.

“They’re delaying [the buildup] until the third budget request of a four-year term,” Harrison said. “They are giving away some of their time.”

As a result, lawmakers will be in the driver’s seat, potentially picking and choosing its own budget priorities among the administration’s policies.

Bob Hale, a former Pentagon comptroller who is now senior executive adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton, said it is premature to conclude that Trump’s promised buildup won’t materialize based on Shanahan’s description of what to expect in 2019.

“What is true is that it’s going to be incredibly hard to plan such a large buildup, especially one that involves a big troop increase, doing it year by year,” Hale said.

Hale expects the 2019 proposal, and the accompanying five-year spending plan, to assume 3 to 5 percent annual growth for the defense budget, which is what the Pentagon says it needs. The challenge will come if Congress does not approve funding at those levels and the Pentagon is forced to choose between its priorities of improving its current readiness, increasing troop levels and updating and replacing its weapons systems.

Hale said the funding levels for procurement accounts will be a key indicator of the Pentagon’s long-term priorities.

“Balance is the key to defense,” he said. “You want procurement to go along with troops and readiness to have a cohesive whole.”

Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.

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