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Rewriting the 2011 Defense Budget: Dr. Gordon Adams

Professor of U.S. Foreign Policy at American University and Distinguished Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center

Earlier in the year, as part of the article that details the 2011 Department of Defense Authorization Bill, which was signed into law Jan. 7, 2011, we asked a select group of people how they would rewrite the current defense budget, with an eye toward the cuts everyone expects are just over the horizon. While we didn’t immediately run these sidebars with the online reprint of the budget piece, we are sharing them now because of their interest in light of current events and future budgets.

Author Craig Collins’ Note: Adams and the Stimson Center contributed to the Nov. 17, 2010, report issued by the Debt Reduction Task Force of the Bipartisan Policy Institute, entitled “Restoring America’s Future”. The task force was chaired by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici and former White House Budget Director and Federal Reserve Vice Chair Alice Rivlin, and includes former White House and Cabinet officials, former Senate and House members, former governors and mayors, and business, labor, and other leaders.


Dr. Gordon Adams: I think fiscally, we’ve been driven to a point where the best-intended plan of [Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates, which is to protect the 1 percent real growth rate in defense, just is not in the cards. It’s not going to happen … when you put deficit pressures and the declining political support together, what you get is what we did from 1985 to 1998. You started with deficit reduction. The Cold War ended. The political skids went out from underneath high levels of defense spending. And between ’85 and ’98, the defense budget went down 36 percent in constant dollars. There’s kind of an almost inevitable Newtonian reality here.

I have no quarrel with the efficiencies the secretary is attempting – though if you’re not cutting the budget, it’s hard to get efficiencies – but trying to do it and saving the dollars for forces and investment is what I think is not going to happen. The Congress is, in one way or another, likely to thank him for his contribution to national security and pocket the savings.

So if that’s true, then what goes? If history is any guide, what goes are procurement and force structure. Every time we’ve done a defense build-down, whether it was post-Korea, post-Vietnam, or post-Cold War, what has gone down first is procurement dollars and second is the size of the force. It’s just what happens.

So is there a rational way to think about doing that, or do we just sort of let it happen? If I were recommending it, it would be a little more rational – at least in my version of rationality. Roughly put, I would adjust the budget according to missions. And this is not something that was done in the Quadrennial Defense Review [QDR]. The QDR I see as kind of a layer cake of missions: We add another one, and another one, and another one. But the QDR never said: “This is more important than that, and this is a higher risk than that, and this has higher consequences than that.” Nobody at the QDR did that kind of analysis. So all the missions received equal priority in the QDR. If I were doing it rationally, I’d say: “Well, let’s take a look at what we think the future 10 or 15 or 20 years are going to look like. What are the most likely missions for which we are going to be using military forces?”

And I would say the least likely mission in the next 10 to 20 years would be something like Iraq and Afghanistan, or to go backwards, Vietnam. That is to say, a massive conventional ground force deployment in another country, either throwing a government out, holding a government together, or fighting its insurgents. My sense is we’ve played that card. It didn’t work very well. Time to step back and revisit that mission and say, “Okay, where are the next big insurgencies, where are we really going to fight this insurgency, how welcome are we going to be to come in and be a stabilizing force?” I frankly disagree with somebody like Gen. [George W.] Casey [U.S. Army chief of staff], who sees an era of perpetual war … coming in the near future. I don’t see that at all. I see, in fact, relatively much lower demand for American military forces to play counterinsurgency and stabilization missions, and a great reluctance in the American body politic to have it play such a role.

This text first appeared in The Year in Defense, 2010 Review, Winter 2011 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...