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Real budget issue isn't the amount, it's the aim

The budget agreement reached by the president and Congress last Friday gives the Pentagon all but $5 billion of the president's $612 billion 2016 budget request. That will please congressional defense hawks, though doubtless not their deficit-obsessed colleagues.

From the military's perspective, the most important aspect of the agreement is less its dollar figure than its duration. By allowing the debt limit to rise and deferring sequestration for another two years, the agreement grants the Pentagon much sought - and much needed - budget stability.

And it does so in the right way, by funding defense programs directly rather than by increases in the off-budget Overseas Contingency Account, a form of accounting chicanery that would have allowed Congress to maintain the fiction of fiscal discipline while practically ignoring it. 

Wasting no time, on Tuesday, defense budget committees in both the House and Senate released a list of the 98 programs that collectively will absorb the $5 billion shortfall. The single largest decrement - more than $1 billion - assumes reduced fuel costs through the budget period, a relatively painless - if potentially hazardous - way to claim savings. 

Still another billion in reductions reflects similarly painless budgetary adjustments, from $262 million in "overestimated" Army civilian personnel costs, to $230 million "saved" by deferring funding of the new Long Range Strike Bomber contract, delayed in any case for other reasons.

 Other savings range from the sublime - the futile effort to train and equip moderate Syrian forces - to the ridiculous, such as canceling the Navy Fleet Band's national tours. For those interested, the entire list is available on the web at

Not all the proposed cuts are budgetary flim-flam, however. Army Readiness takes a $250 million hit. So do procurement programs from Navy DDG-51 destroyers to Air Force armed UAVs and Army counterfire radars. All of those cuts are painful. That said, none is fatal to the affected program.

The more interesting question is how to apportion the remaining $607 billion. And the central issue in that regard is how to balance current and near-term needs with future military challenges and the risks of failing to meet them. 

In programmatic terms, the three legs of the defense budget stool are readiness, force structure, and modernization. The first principally concerns training, maintenance and logistics. The second refers to the size and composition of the force. And the last deals with the adequacy of the weapons and materiel with which it's equipped. 

Cut any one of these legs too short and the stool tilts dangerously. But cut all three legs uniformly without regard for the weight that the stool is intended to bear and the surface on which it's intended to sit, and you might as well trash the stool for all the use it would be.

In a more sensible foreign policy environment, in which U.S. leaders were willing and able to prioritize defense commitments without risking instant political attack for being either too passive or too aggressive, apportioning limited resources among those three legs would be a good deal more straightforward.

In such an environment, readiness logically and appropriately would be tiered, recognizing that major military challenges rarely if ever arise without warning, hence rarely require - or, for that matter, warrant - instant force commitment. 

Force structure similarly would balance immediate with more remote demands, prioritizing those active forces intentionally designed for or at intrinsic risk of short-notice commitment, relying on reserve component mobilization to reinforce those deployed or early deploying formations.

Above all, modernization would be treated as a continuing rather than sporadic requirement, driven neither by pie-in-the-sky technological wish-lists nor by pork-barrel politics, but rather by hard-headed analysis of known and emerging battlefield challenges, informed by the effective use of military history and refined by no-holds-barred, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may war gaming.

In short, a sensible defense budget presumes a disciplined approach to defense programming. Setting aside the domestic political distortions to which defense programs inevitably are subjected, however, no such disciplined approach is achievable in a foreign policy environment characterized by the repeated commitment of military forces for politically impulsive and strategically capricious purposes.

For more than a decade now, we've seen little else. Both the debates among military professionals about how to absorb budget cuts and arguments among politicians about how to evade them without bankrupting the country are in the end less disagreements about money than a reflection of continuing strategic confusion and our still more damaging inability to discipline our military appetites.

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