Guns and Butter: An Overview of the President’s Defense Budget

In reviewing the President’s Defense Budget request for FY16 (PB16) and his new National Security Strategy (NSS), I’m reminded of Admiral Ernest King’s remark to President Roosevelt regarding his all-encompassing role as Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet in WWII, to which the Admiral said, “That’s a big slice of bread you’re giving me, and damn little butter. ” Later, as the war progressed and the size of the fleet grew, the President inquired about the butter, to which Admiral King responded, “The butter is fine, but you keep giving me more bread.”

Seventy years later, an unprecedented 13+ years of continuous war (and still counting), the longest in our nation’s history, has tested the resolve of our service members, the quality of our hardware and the fortitude of our nation and its leadership. Add to that an emergent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan (ISIL), a resurgent Russia, relentless daily cyber-attacks, Ebola relief, global warming uncertainty, active duty and veteran suicides, to name just a few. Would you care for another slice of bread?

As Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, recently stated , “A confluence of global political, military, social, and technological developments, which, taken in aggregate, have created security challenges more diverse and complex than those we have experienced in our lifetimes.” In sober tones he added, “This strategic environment will be with us for some time, and the threat’s increasing scope, volatility, and complexity will be the ‘new normal.’”

If we’re truly in a “new normal” then we’d expect to see an appropriate response and justification in PB16 and the NSS. A quick glance is disappointing. DoD outlays as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will be at historical lows at 3.1 percent, while DoD outlays as a percentage of federal spending will be 14.3 percent, also at its lowest levels since WWI. Similarly, President Obama writes in the NSS, “On all these fronts, America leads from a position of strength,” he writes. “But this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes.”

The President’s remarks reflect the perennial question of how best to manage risk. How much for defense, how much for necessary social programs? How much for procurement versus research and development? How much for sustainment versus new construction? And at a higher level, how do we guarantee our homeland security without becoming the world’s policeman? How do we remain engaged, without becoming trapped? How do we create more equitable burden sharing among nations?, etc. etc. Suggesting a poor recent return on investment, Admiral Gortney, Commander Northern Command (NORTHCOM), sees more rough waters ahead, “(in the past) we came out of major wars more secure. This time the international security environment is not better than when we started. Our inability to predict the future and the rapidity of these charges are startling.” This short piece can’t begin to answer those meaty questions, but an evaluation of PB16 and the NSS, with a little help, did tease out an interesting thought.

In trying to capture the essence of both documents, I did what any sports fan would do; I turned to success stories. Fortunately, our Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (named appropriately) came to the rescue. The Patriots perennial success suggests two DoD budget categories accounts must always be fully funded: Operations and Maintenance (O&M), and Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E).

Bill Belichick’s remarks at his “deflategate” press conference identified the first essential ingredient – readiness. He said, “My personal coaching philosophy, my mentality has always been to make things as difficult as possible for players in practice. Our players train in conditions that a lot of people would recommend that we not drive in. They’re a physically and mentally tough team that works hard, that trains hard, that prepares hard, and have met every challenge that I’ve put in front of them.” Coach Belichick’s tough training in military parlance is to train like you’ll fight. It requires a ready force, brought about only through a fully funded O&M account. It allows the fighting force to go forward, remain forward, and remain engaged. Readiness ensures we’ll always play away games; we have no interest in fighting the enemy at home. (As testimonial, kudos go to U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force for recently executing their 4,000th strategic deterrence submarine patrol since 1960.)

The good news for PB16 is that although Readiness gains remain fragile, its funding levels are improving. O&M saw the biggest increase of any one category, with PB16’s level 14.5 percent above FY15. There is department-wide recognition to restore full spectrum force readiness. Secretary of the Army, John McHugh considers readiness one of two nonnegotiables in shaping the future; the Navy’s PB16 dedicates adequate funding to ship operations (number of days budgeted for ships to spend at sea), flying hours, depot maintenance and Marine Corps ground equipment; and the Air Force O&M account is recovering from 2013’s sequestration that dropped readiness to its lowest level since the early 1980s. You cannot win internationally if you’re only a fleet in being, if you’re great on paper but not properly trained. Our forces must be funded to learn through meaningful training, so that they’ll always win in battle. Without this focus, we’ll become the superior team that is playing the hated prevent defense to not lose the game in the fourth quarter; give a little, just don’t give up the touchdown. Such an approach loses fans and allies alike.

Examining Coach Belichick and the New England Patriots’ path to success identified the second essential element of the DoD budget – fully funded RDT&E. A successful organization must continually innovate to remain on top. While some of the Patriot methods have received scrutiny and even condemnation, the bottom line is Coach Belichick is widely known for aggressively searching for ways to gain the advantage over his opponent. After all, the best team on paper does not always win the game. He’s not afraid of taking chances, or experiencing a failure or two, so long as he keeps making forward progress. Innovation has been a longstanding DoD hallmark and on countless occasions turned the tide in our favor, or prevented an adversary from engaging us decisively. With global challenges becoming increasingly complex in nature and growing daily, fully funded RDT&E is essential.

Once again, the good news is PB16 reflects an increased emphasis on innovation. Despite numerous challenges from other Army accounts, the Army did their best to protect RDT&E levels in FY15; the Department of the Navy’s funding rose by a healthy $1.9B, as did Air Force RDT&E. The amazing work of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs across our country was in full display at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO last week here in Washington D.C., and reinforced DoD’s commitment to not only fund great ideas, but the commitment to get the best ones out in the Fleet and in the field quickly. Case in point is Navy funded lasers aboard USS PONCE in the Arabian Gulf and upcoming at-sea testing of the electromagnetic rail gun aboard a Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV). Even non-weapon ideas, like 3-D printing, long lasting LED light fixtures and biofuels are pushing the innovation envelope and generating long term savings.

So while the size and immediacy of the threat has historically (and will likely continue to) generate large adjustments in DoD’s procurement, military personnel and construction accounts, DoD’s O&M and RDT&E accounts must always remain robust and fully funded in order to successfully mitigate, and defeat, any and all threats. Please pass the butter.

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