US Defense Secretary Ash Carter Makes $600 Billion Bet on New Defense Budget

The Pentagon's boss is trying to push bold reforms through the defense budget — and that may turn a usually boring process into something fun to watch for a change, even if you aren't a defense wonk.
February 3, 2016, 4:25pm
Secretary Carter on a 2015 visit to South Korea. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt / TK

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced on Wednesday that the US was increasing its spending on the fight against the Islamic State in Fiscal Year 2017 to to $7.5 billion — a 50 percent increase over the current year. Part of that increase is a $1.8 billion purchase of more than 45,000 precision weapons, including smart bombs and guided missiles, to replenish stocks depleted by the intensifying air campaign.

Carter is embarking on a weeklong campaign to sell this year's defense budget request, before President Barack Obama's formal budget submission. During his half-hour speech at the Economic Club of Washington, Carter regaled the audience with a pretty hefty selection of numbers and data, fleshing out his vision for the future of the Department of Defense. Which, as it turns out, includes the aforementioned uptick in spending in the fight against IS.

$7.5 billion sounds like a lot of money. But keep it in perspective: The entire Department of Defense's budget request for Fiscal 2017 is, according to Carter, going to be $582.7 billion. That means the whole $7.5 billion dedicated to making IS miserable amounts to a measly 1.3 percent of the total DoD budget.

The fact that the campaign against the Islamic State is both massive and microscopic at the same time gives some perspective on the immense size of the Pentagon. The quick and dirty explanation for that size deals with Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And the Pentagon needs to plan for that possibility, in its nearly infinite permutations: Assuming that everything goes wrong, and that the Department of Defense will be called upon to find, fix, or fight whatever it is. So, for sake of argument, if Uruguay loses its ever-loving mind, gets nukes, and threatens to launch a full nuclear strike on Paraguay, then the DoD will be able to do something about it.

Okay, the DoD's mission isn't quite that expansive, but the range of contingencies and operations that the Department of Defense feels it is obligated to prepare for is still enormous. The result is an impossibly large, hard-to-steer organization with a lot of inertia.

If you want to substantively change the DoD, the budget is the best way to go. Carter's budget is actually shaping up to be a very interesting budget for two reasons. First is the amount of time available to Carter compared to the size of the changes he wants to make. The second reason is fashion.

To start, Carter, essentially, gets one budget to do everything he wants to do with the Pentagon. He was appointed in February 2015, after Chuck Hagel left. It's a pretty sure bet that, like many of his predecessors, Carter can't count on sticking around once his current boss, Obama, leaves office in January 2017.

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On the calendar, that gives Carter almost a full two years to implement any changes he wants to make, but in reality, that means he'll have just one budget (this year's), for which he'll oversee both the entire year's worth of planning (which happened over the last year) and an entire year of executing that budget (from now until this time next year).

Given the size of the DoD, changing direction that quickly may seem like a nearly impossible task. The first term that comes to mind is "pigeon management" — meaning a manager who flies in from out of nowhere, squawks a lot, shits all over everything, and then flies off into the distance.

But, fortunately, Carter's efforts look like they're pretty far from pigeon management. If there's anyone well-suited to the challenge of trying to make a short stint as secretary meaningful, Carter's one of the few who may be able to pull it off. Without doing a deep dive into his resume, let's just reference a Defense One piece written about Carter's appointment that quotes Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon policy guy, as saying, "It's like he's been genetically engineered to be defense secretary."

He's been in the Pentagon in a number of senior roles for years; his most recent posting was as the number two in the DoD. So, on one hand, he has been thinking a lot about what direction the DoD should take and is well equipped to make those decisions. On the flipside, he's got a tiny amount of time to make a lot of changes stick.

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For those of you cursed with an abiding interest in the defense budget, solving this problem will be a bit easier than it first seems, because the defense budget (like damned near everything else) has cycles. Stuff goes in and out of fashion, and this one is shaping up to be no different.

For the US, the post-World War II cycle has been pretty steady. It starts at the top with some sort of large, costly war with someone other than the Soviets/Russians in some place other than Europe. The war grinds to an end and two things happen nearly simultaneously. In the aftermath of a less-than-spectacularly-victorious war, folks discover that it's difficult and costly to rebuild a worn-out, beat-up force tired from fighting, something sports fans might know as a "rebuilding season." Simultaneously, people realize that the US has been so busy mucking about in some remote corner of the world that it's very ill equipped for the great big conventional warfare threat, which turns out to be facing down the Russians (nee Soviets) in some cataclysmic European war.

Every time this has played out — after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War — the subsequent debates and arguments have been strikingly similar. Not a precise repetition, mind you, but close enough that you can usually guess at some of the bigger, louder conversations before they start.

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In short, the basic scenario is something like this: After a long conflict, the US military finds itself being too small and too poorly equipped to take on a super-heavyweight adversary. Debates ensue that involve fiddling with the various permutations of choosing between a lot of cheaper, less-capable systems versus a smaller number of more advanced systems.

That debate goes by many names — quantity versus quality; mass v. precision; capacity v. capability; etc. — but both sides are pretty easy to script. One party will argue that the new systems being proposed are too complex, too unreliable, and too unaffordable. They'll attack them as gold-plated boondoggles and nothing but welfare for defense contractors; congressional pork spent on pie-in-the-sky extravagances, instead of more reliable, pragmatic, down-to-Earth alternatives.

Meanwhile, the other side will say the cheaper, more-numerous alternative is going to be obsolete before it ever hits the field, places our men and women in uniform at unacceptable risk to whatever cleverness the bad guys are fielding, and is generally a matter of being stingy to the point of homicidal negligence.

Both sides will periodically bring up verbiage about "fighting the last war," being stuck in old-fashioned ways of thinking, or failing to appreciate technology or youth or modernity or whatever.

Carter is trying to march the DoD through a lot of those debates about rebuilding the military and compress them into one budget submission.

Ballsy.

So, now that we've covered all the background, let's get to a lightning-quick overview of Carter's general themes.

The big underlying sentiment is that the DoD needs to first manage immediate, short-term problems (i.e. how to beat IS into the ground). The short-term stuff needs to happen at the same time the US works on getting up to speed to counter rapidly developing Russian and Chinese capabilities, so that both of those guys are convinced that they shouldn't try anything stupid. Both the immediate and long-term problems need to be solved without letting North Korea and/or Iran get squirrely and do something in their neighborhood that the US or its allies don't like. This assessment of the global security environment is pretty normal thinking in keeping with the very broad conventional wisdom within the defense community.

But because budgets are tight, the DoD is going to be have to work extra hard to be smarter about how it runs itself. This means trimming bureaucratic waste (reducing overhead costs by $8 billion over the next five years) and making the acquisitions process less of a spectacular disaster, plus other reforms that mean a lot to DC insiders but zero to outsiders. Finally, Carter is pushing a whole bunch of reforms to personnel and HR practices to make the Pentagon suck less at those things. The HR revamp is being carried out under the impressively named but actually kind of tedious "Force of the Future."

Beyond the bureaucratic stuff, the Pentagon wants to spend a $71.4 billion dollop of cash on research and development. Which — at three to four times the NASA budget — is definitely real money. Other big spends are on all manner of fancy-sounding, high-tech stuff, like cyber, space, electronic warfare, and so on.

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Overall, this big push toward more technology will supposedly be both practical and cost-effective because the DoD will be looking for commercially available technology it can quickly grab, partnerships with the private sector, and the magical fairy dust called "innovation." In listening to some of the capabilities referenced in Carter's speech, it sounds like the DoD is moving toward something more serious and a lot less silly than the mystical "Third Offset" efforts I've previously mocked.

Based on some of the ideas offered today, as well as rumors circulating about what's in store in Carter's future speeches, there may actually be some more genuinely shit-hot concepts that will be put forward in coming days. Whether or not any of the really brilliant things are further developed or some of the cleverness gets rehashed in each speech, I'll be visiting those topics in coming days. My early impression is that the different technological initiatives that will be rolled out in various presentations actually fit together in interesting and novel ways. I could, of course, be completely wrong on that, but I want to give Carter's roadshow until at least the next budget rollout event to see if broader concepts will emerge.

So, rarity of rarities, the next week or so might see Carter talk about some honest-to-God, genuinely interesting ideas. Stay tuned.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DVIDS