Reviving Interservice Competition

I recently complained that the US defense budget fails to adhere to a strategy; that it avoids choice between means. This lack of choice is manifest in the preservation of service shares. Each military service has gotten about the same relative share of the defense budget each year under Bush, despite the war on terror. In fact, the shares have basically held since the Kennedy administration.

In recent decades, the Navy got about 26 percent of the defense budget; 31 percent including the Marines. The Air Force also got around 31 percent, and the Army 25 percent. The rest went to defense-wide programs like missile defense. Annual deviations are rarely ever above two percent. This year brings a slight uptick in the Army share; the numbers are 29 percent Navy and Marines, 28 percent Air Force, and 27 percent Army. Current budget shares deviate more from the historical norm if you include the supplemental war appropriations, which favor the ground forces. But the point of a supplemental is that it does not affect the future baseline.

In today’s Christian Science Monitor, Gordon Lubold writes that a Congressional “Roles and Missions” panel, formed under the auspices of the House Armed Services Committee, is set to release a report that questions this arrangement. That’s good news.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), who chaired the panel, calls the continuity of service shares “a statistical indictment” of the Pentagon planning process. The current US national security strategy – as seen in official documents, rhetoric, and our two wars – is counter-terrorism via counter-insurgency. That is, counter-terrorism is our primary security task, and to accomplish it we aim to deny terrorists haven with wars of occupation meant to resurrect government in anarchic states like Iraq and Afghanistan. We have other objectives – contain rising powers, stem weapons proliferation, etc, but these are secondary.

This strategy favors the Army. Ground forces take center-stage in counter-insurgency and state-building, with contributing performances from aircraft and other government agencies. It follows that our defense budget would flood money into the Army and Marines and cut the Air Force and Navy’s budget to pay for it. Instead, we have given each service the same bump in funds – roughly 35% percent under Bush.

Personally, I think this strategy is foolish. I’d prefer to stay out of other people’s civil wars and hunt terrorists via intelligence agencies and police. Ideally, Congress would push a more workable and cheaper strategy. But helping align forces with the politics that theoretically govern them is still worthwhile. Insofar as we have this flawed strategy, military posture ought to reflect it.

The Monitor quotes the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, responding to Cooper’s critique by worrying that ending fixed service shares will unleash interservice competition. I say let them fight. Everyone assumes that because jointness is helpful on the battlefield, it must be great in defense planning. But service cooperation in the Pentagon has become collusion that prevents civilian control and therefore the implementation of national policy. And competition for resources between government entities can spark smarter public policy, including military innovation, as political scientists I know argue.

During the Eisenhower administration, the Air Force, which wielded the big stick – strategic airpower – in Ike’s massive retaliation strategy, got about half the defense budget. The Army and Navy fought over the remainder. Their scramble for relevance made them advocates of alternative strategies that relied less on nuclear weapons, or at least less on nuclear weapons delivered by bombers (the Navy responded by inventing submarine launched ballistic missiles). The strategic debate gave policy-makers both well-crafted alternatives and ready bureaucratic allies for their implementation.

Were the ground forces given half of the defense budget – or if that merely seemed politically possible – the other services’ self-interest might propel them to articulate opposing strategies. Even the Army’s slight gains have recently pushed the Navy and Air Force to rearticulate their relevance. The results so far are disappointing, but more open competition could be useful. The Navy might champion an off-shore balancing strategy and attack the current small war strategy. Civilians might develop a sharper sense of their alternatives.

The beneficiaries of fixed budget shares are the military services, who get budgetary security independent of their contribution to national security. The losers are the civilians trying to run the Pentagon and taxpayers. Cooper’s report won’t change anything alone, but it may help.