Tag: The Pentagon

Civilian Personnel: The Missing Piece in the Pentagon’s Budget Puzzle

While most news stories have accurately characterized the Obama administration’s proposed military spending cuts as “modest,” the Pentagon is planning significant reductions in the number of active-duty troops in the Army and Marine Corps. Both forces will be larger than they were in 2001, but the active-duty Army will fall from a post-9/11 high of 570,000 in 2010 to 490,000. The Marine Corps will go from 202,000 to 182,000.

The DoD should likewise reduce civilian personnel.

The reason the Pentagon’s plan places so much emphasis on personnel is stated clearly in the document (pdf):

Military personnel costs have doubled since 2001, or about 40% above inflation, while the number of full-time military personnel, including activated reserves, increased by only 8% during the same time period.

Ben Friedman and I have argued for an even smaller Army and Marine Corps, on the understanding that we should not permanently station U.S. troops in Europe and Asia. Such forward deployments are not essential to U.S. security and might ultimately undermine global security by encouraging other countries to defer spending for their own defense.

But the current proposal is clearly a step in the right direction, and it reflects the fact that Washington—and the American people—are not anxious to repeat the bitter experiences of the past decade. The costs of regime change followed by aggressive counterinsurgency are almost never outweighed by the benefits. We don’t have to build nations in order to destroy terrorists. The Army and Marine Corps grew to fight these types of wars, and they will now shrink back to nearly pre-war levels.

Other savings are possible, but not likely to be achieved in the near future. The president will ask Congress to authorize use of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process for changes in physical infrastructure. However, some members of Congress are already linking arms to prevent another round of base closings. Still, another BRAC (if it is ever convened) won’t generate significant savings in the next five years, and perhaps not in the next 10. Additionally, the proposal calls for Congress to empower “a commission with BRAC-like authority” to review the full range of costs associated with the military retirement system, with the added stipulation that any “reforms should only affect future recruits.” Thus, any potential savings will not materialize in the near term.

Yet, there is a way to realize more savings in personnel within the next five years. A smaller active-duty force that requires less physical infrastructure should require fewer civilians as well. The budget highlights released yesterday, however, made no mention of additional reductions in the DoD’s civilian workforce. The individual services might seek to reduce their civilian personnel in order to meet the department’s efficiency goals ($60 billion in savings over the next five years), but it does not appear that the Pentagon as a whole is currently planning such cuts.

It should. Consider these statistics from the DoD’s 2012 Green Book: In 2001, when the active-duty force totaled 1,451,000 (all four services, plus mobilized Guard and Reservists) there were 687,000 DoD civilians and their pay accounted for $58.6 billion (in today’s dollars). In 2011, there were a total of 1,510,000 persons on active duty (a 4 percent increase), but the civilian workforce had grown to 790,000 (a 15 percent increase) and the civilian payroll totaled $70.8 billion. If the Army and Marine Corps are cut as planned, and the Navy and Air Force remain at current levels, a commensurate (and I don’t know yet what that would be) reduction in the civilian workforce should generate additional savings.

Such savings might not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but, at a minimum, I hope that the budget document released in a few weeks will reveal the department’s plans for a civilian workforce that will soon be far larger than necessary.

The New Pentagon Budget: Better, but Not Great

The changes announced in the Pentagon’s new budget guidance are, from my perspective, mostly good news, but woefully insufficient. They show how even limited austerity encourages prioritization among weapons systems that suddenly have to compete. A few more budgets like this and we’ll be getting somewhere.

The White House has not yet released the actual budget, but the Pentagon yesterday released a new document that explains the minor cuts in line for its slice. The document, unlike all the other defense strategy and guidance documents that have come out in recent years, sticks to plain English, avoids geopolitical gobbledygook, and tells you the budgetary impacts of its assertions. For that alone the Pentagon deserves some credit.

The document claims to be a guide to savings of $487 billion over 10 years. But you only get that figure by counting against past White House budget requests and their associated spending trajectory. We are saving just $6 billion from fiscal year 2012 to 2013, or 3.2% adjusted for inflation. If we leave out falling war costs, we have essentially frozen defense spending for two fiscal years (2011 and 2012), letting it grow at about inflation and then slightly slower, respectively. The Pentagon expects defense spending to grow at the rate of inflation or faster starting in fiscal year 2014, although their estimates of inflation are self-serving.

The new spending trajectory would cut about 8 percent from the base budget by the end of the decade. That’s from a budget that doubled in real terms from 1998 until 2012. And some of those savings are not really saved; they have simply migrated into the war budget. Keep in mind also that those savings are just a plan, one that is unlikely to last, particularly as presidents and Congresses change.

The biggest change in this budget is the beginning in a reduction of ground forces. The document says we will cut 80,000 troops from the Army and 20,000 from the Marines. The rationale is solid: we are probably not going to be committing large numbers of troops to another occupation of a populous country in revolt any time soon. Yet the cut leaves both forces with more personnel than they had prior to the expansion of ground forces that began in 2008. A real strategic shift away from occupational warfare would entail a bigger drawdown of Army and Marine personnel.

The document also reaffirms the administration’s decision to remove two army brigades from Europe, roughly halving our combat presence there. That’s good news given the absence of threat there and our NATO allies’ free-riding on U.S. taxpayers. But it only amounts to recommitting to a Bush administration plan. And we are unfortunately adding troops in the Philippines and Australia, at best a useless gesture that may encourage China’s military buildup.

The budget also takes a useful step in reducing the amount of tactical Air Force squadrons by six. Given the precision-revolution in targeting that makes each aircraft far more destructive and the increased Navy capability to strike targets from carriers, far bigger cuts in these forces are possible. Oddly, this reduction comes without a planned reduction in the purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Even worse, the Pentagon here reaffirms its commitment to the F-35B—the short-take-off and vertical landing version—taking it off “probation.” That version is meant to fly on amphibious landing ships to support missions where Marines attack shorelines. It’s hard to imagine such a mission where helicopters are insufficient for air-support and there is no carrier-based aircraft available to help the Marines, especially now that the Pentagon is again planning on operating 11 carriers.

The new version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is evidence of austerity forcing choices. The Pentagon now wants to cancel it because it is at least as expensive as the U-2 manned aircraft, which accomplishes similar tasks. This budget also usefully endorses the early retirement of some of our airlift capacity and tries to kill a new Army ground combat vehicle.

Another positive development is the request for two new rounds of base closures. This process requires legislation from Congress to form a Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).

Still, the hard choices here are few. Many observers were hopeful that budget savings would include cutting our excessive means of delivering nuclear weapons. But while the proposal delays production of the new ballistic missile submarine and speaks vaguely of a “different” sort of nuclear arsenal, it supports the continuation of the triad. There is still hope on this front, however. The Air Force plans to build its next bomber initially without nuclear weapons delivery capability, adding it later in development. That amounts to dangling bait for budget cutters. Like the F-35B, the nuclear bomber has an unnecessary mission that a more austere budget would cause us to reconsider

So while the changes in this budget may be the first step toward a more restrained military posture, including perhaps a strategy of offshore balancing, they are a minor one. A true offshore balancing strategy would involve a greater shift of resources from the Army to the Navy. This budget, by contrast, seems unlikely to end the traditional budget split where each service gets roughly one-third of the base.

Unsurprisingly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used his press conference yesterday to push Congress to amend the Budget Control Act to avoid sequestration, the across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon’s budget due next January, which would roughly double the cuts outlined here. I have argued that these pleas seem to play into Republicans’ hand in the coming budget negotiations. Readers should also know that the Pentagon could avoid the “meat-axe” nature of sequestration (to use Panetta’s language) by budgeting at the level sequestration would accomplish, roughly $492 billion, or about what non-war defense spending was in 2007. That would let the Pentagon choose how to make cuts. The strategic insights guiding these minor cuts could be exploited to make those larger ones.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Thoughts on the F-35’s Extra Engine

I’m a bit late to the party in commenting on the passage of the Rooney Amendment, a successful effort on the part of 2nd-term Republican Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) to strip funding for the F-136, an engine that the Pentagon doesn’t want for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

A few additional thoughts: unlike nearly all other amendments to the CR, Rooney’s passed, and fairly easily. Part of the reason is strong administration support for the effort, key especially to securing votes from Democrats – those who don’t have F-136 plants in their districts, that is. But Gates had signaled his displeasure many times previously, so that alone doesn’t explain this rare victory for budget hawks.

I would guess that an additional factor is the slew of new Republicans elected on a platform of fiscal prudence. Having Rooney as a champion for the cause certainly helped, with 110 Republicans voting for the amendment (vote tally here). A majority within the GOP still treat weapons contractors with kid gloves, but claiming that every single weapon system is essential to the nation’s survival can get pretty laughable, especially when the Secretary of Defense and all the relevant uniformed officers disagree. 

(Speaking of laughable, wouldn’t it be absurd for the Obama administration to threaten to veto the CR because it now has too little money for the Pentagon? Wait. That happened.)

Much as I would like to dwell on the defeat of the F-136 in the House, however, I am sobered by the reality of budgeting for the military. This is hardly the final blow in this battle. Opponents and supporters of the extra engine in the Senate have already lined up their forces. The engine might yet re-emerge. And we must not lose sight of the fact that the total amount saved – $450 million – is tiny relative to the Pentagon’s budget of around $540 billion in this fiscal year. Perhaps rather than debating the need for a second engine, we should be debating the need for a plane that is grossly over budget, badly behind schedule, and riddled with performance problems?

So kudos to Congressman Rooney for leading this fight, but there is still much, much more to do to bring military spending down to reasonable levels. (For example, removing U.S. troops from Europe, a policy that already enjoys considerable support.)

Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending

Today ForeignPolicy.com has a feature article examining possible “Plan B’s for Obama,” with contributions coming from numerous experts. My contribution to the feature is titled “Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending.”

It is time for President Obama and the administration to finally notice the increasing calls—from across the political spectrum—that the Pentagon’s budget should not be off limits when reducing the deficit.  From the Foreign Policy article:

Despite all the hype about Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his cuts of big-ticket military projects, the Pentagon’s $680 billion budget is actually slated to increase in coming years. This is unconscionable at a time when taxpayers are under enormous stress and when the U.S. government must reduce spending across the board. Barack Obama can save big bucks without undermining U.S. security – but only if he refocuses the military on a few, core missions.

The hawks will scream, but America will be just fine. Obama can capitalize on the country’s unique advantages – wide oceans to the east and west, friendly neighbors to the north and south, a dearth of powerful enemies globally, and the wealth to adapt to dangers as they arise – by adopting a grand strategy of restraint. The United States could shed the burden of defending other countries that are able to defend themselves, abandon futile efforts to fix failed states, and focus on those security challenges that pose the greatest threat to America. A strategic shift of this magnitude will not only reduce conflict and make the United States safer, but it will enable Obama to reshape the military to suit this more modest set of objectives, at a price that’s far easier for taxpayers to swallow.

Click here to read the full article

Ed Morrissey on The Struggle to Limit Government

Ed Morrissey kindly mentioned The Struggle to Limit Government and responds to the advice for Tea Partiers in my video.

Morrissey says:

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that some Tea Partiers “like” big government; it’s more like some aren’t enthusiastic about dismantling as much of the federal government as others, especially the more doctrinaire libertarians.

In the video I noted that polls showed a majority of the people who identify with the Tea Party movement also thought the entitlement programs were worth their cost. My colleague, Jagadeesh Gokhale, has estimated that paying for current entitlements would require 9 percent of GNP in perpetuity. This is unlikely. Entitlements will have to be changed since too much has been promised. People who think the programs have been worth their cost are not likely initially to support reining in the entitlements. In saying that, I expressed a concern, not a prediction. It may be that Tea Party people will also come to recognize, as Ed Morrissey does, that the entitlement state cannot continue.

I said in the video that Tea Party people should recognize that “Democrats are not always the enemy.” Morrissey rightly says I should not talk about enemies in domestic politics. He adds that the current House Democratic caucus does not deserve support because its leaders favor expanding government. He’s right. Divided government is what we need now. However, I had in mind the more centrist Democrats that supported the tax and spending cuts of 1981 and the tax reform of 1986. I am urging Tea Party people to avoid becoming too partisan. Perhaps some of them will still be in Congress in 2011.

Then there’s the question of foreign policy and defense spending. In the video I said that a limited government movement like the Tea Party should start thinking outside the box on spending. I suggested rethinking America’s expansive commitments in foreign affairs as a way to reduce our military spending.  I did not deny – who could deny it? – that the Constitution entrusts the common defense to the federal government. I also recognize that the United States continues to have enemies. The question is: what should the government do to provide the common defense consistent with limited government?

In the past decade, we have spent enormous sums trying to transform two nations and the entire Middle East into liberal democracies. This was our “forward strategy” for dealing with terrorism. It reminded me of past Progressive crusades at home and abroad.   The strategy was a domestic political disaster, and we shall see whether our massive outlays eventually produce stability in Iraq or Afghanistan. For my part, I remain partial to the conservative virtues of realism, restraint, and prudence in dealing with other nations.

The United States is currently spending about half of all military spending in the world. We have some room for restraint without endangering American lives. We will still have a Navy that protects trade routes to the extent they are threatened. As I said in the video, we need to rethink our overall place in the world if we are to corral the big government beast. The Tea Party folks can lead the way here.

The Pentagon is not most of the federal budget. It is the only part historically, however, that can vary downward as well as upward. Sometime soon, the non-defense parts of the budget are going to have to vary downward rather than just upward.  Being serious about limiting government, however, requires that all spending be considered. Since I think the Tea Party movement is serious about cutting government, it would be better if they had a look at all spending from the start.

Government and GDP

The expansion in government and poor state of the economy got me thinking about how government growth is reflected in measured gross domestic product. So here is a wonky look at the treatment of government in the Bureau of Economic Analysis GDP data.

Data notes: By “government,” I mean total federal, state, and local. For 2009, I’m using the average of second and third quarter data. All data from BEA Tables here.

GDP measures total production. In 2009, government production was 20.7 percent of U.S. GDP.  Government production is roughly the sum of government value-added (the stuff it produces itself) and government purchases. The first item, government value-added, was 12.4 percent of GDP and mainly consists of employee compensation. For example, the Pentagon produces output by adding together fighter pilots, which it hires, and fighter jets, which it buys.

A more commonly cited measure of government is total government spending. In 2009, that was 38 percent of GDP. The difference between this number (38 percent) and the production number (20.7 percent) is 17.3 percent, and represents the sum of government interest payments and transfer payments to individuals and businesses.

Figure 1 shows how the three measurements of government size have changed over time. Government production has remained fairly stable as a share of the economy, but total government spending has soared. The growing gap between these two lines mainly represents the massive growth in transfer (or subsidy) programs, such as Social Security.

12-10-09 edwardschart

How Does Government Growth Affect Measured GDP?

Consider how the recent rise in government spending might have affected measured GDP. First, let’s look first at the production part of government spending. The important thing here is that we don’t know how much government workers actually produce because their output is generally not sold on the market. As a consequence, the BEA measures their output as the sum of their compensation amounts. Also, we know the dollar value of the things the government buys, but we don’t know how much those intermediate goods actually produce when in the hands of the government. So the government production portion of GDP seems kind of shaky, despite the superb efforts of the BEA to assemble all the data.

Anyway, let’s say the government adds a new worker with pay of $100,000, the BEA measures GDP being boosted by $100,000. But it might be that the worker doesn’t actually produce anything useful, and he adds zero to the economy’s actual output.

If the government hires that worker away from the private sector, private GDP would go down by about $100,000. As a result, overall measured GDP would be unchanged. But that would be incorrect because the economy’s actual output fell by $100,000.

So let’s say the government spent $100 billion to hire a million new government workers. Let’s say half of those workers produced as much value as their salaries, but the other half produced nothing of value. The result of this government expansion would be that the BEA would overestimate U.S. GDP by $50 billion. (I am assuming that the government’s hiring doesn’t change the unemployment rate. I’m also ignoring the distortionary effects of higher taxes).  

Now let’s look at the transfer or subsidy portion of government, which equals 17.3 percent of GDP.

Let’s say the government increases transfers by $100 billion, perhaps by increasing Social Security benefits, and funding it by higher taxes on wages.

If there are no behavioral responses among taxpayers and benefit recipients, measured GDP would be unchanged, which would be the correct answer.

But of course there would be behavioral responses. The higher taxes would induce people to work less and the higher Social Security benefits would induce people to save less and retire earlier. The results would be that output would fall, and that would be accurately reflected in measured GDP.

In sum, my purpose here was not to explore how a growing government affects the economy, which is a huge subject. Instead, it was to explore whether measured GDP accurately reflects changes in the size of government. The answer appears to be that the transfer part of government spending (17.3 percent of GDP) would be accurately reflected in a shrinking GDP, but that the production portion of government spending (20.7 percent of GDP) may not be. If workers produce less output when they work for government than when they work in the private economy, the latter portion of measured GDP will be overstated.

McCain: Interests of Defense Contractors May Conflict with US National Interest

USA Today reports that retired military officers join the boards of directors of, or become employees of, defense contractors and take home big bags of money doing so.  Not surprising.  At the same time, the paper reports, lots of them are being paid by the Pentagon to be “senior mentors” of their former colleagues. Not being government employees, but rather independent contractors, these folks aren’t subject to government ethics rules.  To take one example, as chairman of BAE Systems, Gen. Anthony Zinni is clearing almost a million a year, in addition to his $129,000 per year government pension.  In addition to all that, the Pentagon pays him about $2,000 per day to “mentor” people at DOD.

As the article points out, information is almost invaluable to the defense contractors in these contexts.  The knowledge of what’s going on at DOD is extremely useful for planners at the defense companies, and so while the retired officers are protesting that being paid nearly $2,000 per day by DOD for their work as mentors is “way below the industry average,” it increases their value to, and presumably their compensation from, their military-industrial employers.  As one coordinator of the mentors program told the retired officers, “you’re getting paid in two ways–monetarily and informationally.”

This isn’t too surprising a story, but the crowning irony comes as Sen. John McCain calls for an ethics rewrite and offers his view that “the important thing is that [the involved officers] avoid the appearance of conflict.” This is a puzzling remark coming from a man whose top foreign-policy adviser was collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Georgian government to lobby McCain at the same time he was being paid by McCain to advise him on foreign policy.

McCain’s thoughts about conflict of interest in that instance?  He was “so proud” of his lobbyist-cum-adviser.  Presumably once McCain issued his ridiculous “today we are all Georgians” fatwa it became a patriotic duty to take money from foreign governments to represent their interests.  But in the case of the proposed reforms–which would attempt to institute some semblance of transparency in these mentoring deals–one can only wish the senator from Arizona the best.