As the March 1 deadline for forced budget cuts looms, the congressional debate over the Pentagon budget is tightly focused on the consequences of sudden and across the board spending reductions. The problem with this narrow focus on the so-called sequestration debate is that it appears lawmakers are poised to make decisions on the future of the U.S. military and national security mostly on the basis of raw numbers.
This is a dangerous game. Instead, Congress should take a more balanced approach that also uses a strategy-driven view of what priorities should guide defense spending. Until lawmakers take this step, it will be impossible for them to responsibly address what level of resources the Pentagon requires and how it can assist in reducing the deficit.
Earlier this month, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, inserted the question of strategy into the debate during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the budget cuts. Dempsey implied any further reductions would put the current strategy at risk, saying "What do you want your military to do? If you want it to be doing what it's doing today, then we can't give you another dollar."
But just like its budget, the Pentagon's strategy is not sacrosanct. On the contrary, in its current form, it lacks key details to enable Congress to make informed decisions on the future of the Pentagon's budget -- or even to evaluate the accuracy of General Dempsey's statement. While Pentagon strategy documents lay out impressive wish lists of objectives, roles and missions for the U.S. military, they fail to set priorities about the relative importance of the tasks that the Pentagon is doing today.
This is not a new problem. To be fair, the Obama administration has disciplined the Pentagon's historically unruly wish lists, and the administration's policy of strategic rebalancing to emphasize the importance of the Pacific and Middle East is a step in the right direction.
But cutting through grand lists requires something more than geographic areas of focus -- it needs tough prioritization of goals. Put simply, lawmakers need to ask themselves, what threats are the most severe? What American interests are most at stake? What are the most significant gaps in military capability that the Pentagon is most concerned about and that require investment?
Answers to these kinds of questions are what members of Congress need to know before they can make educated decisions about Pentagon spending, whether before the enforced budget cuts or after. Until the conversation between the Hill and the Defense Department takes this turn, any decision on funding levels will have been a half-baked exercise.
That's why lawmakers should start a transparent conversation on strategic priorities with the Pentagon when they return to Washington this week. Congress should request that the Defense Department provide guidance on how it prioritizes within its larger list of objectives, roles and missions. And the Pentagon should provide some explanation of corresponding funding it believes it requires over the mid-to-long-term to meet each of the priorities that have to be balanced against one another based on real-world resources constraints.
Only by obtaining this information can Congress manage the risks involved with large budgetary choices over the Pentagon. The exercise would be fruitful for the Pentagon, too, and might well encourage a disciplined return to the real world where wish lists are not fundable. Moreover, a focus on priorities may shift the tenor of the conversation away from ideological divisions and towards cold facts and reaching serious conclusions about national security.
To be sure, this is the beginning of a larger conversation that will barely have started by the time sequestration is either averted, fixed or modified after the fact. And no doubt such a dialogue would continue into the upcoming FY2014 Pentagon budget hearings and beyond. But as America prepares to enter its first post-war era in a generation facing towering fiscal challenges, there are real questions about the future of national security priorities that simply cannot be postponed any longer.