What Would It Cost to Eliminate All Risk in the World?

I could not write that headline without chuckling to myself, but this is no laughing matter for some members of Congress. They are asking the Pentagon to describe what it would take to eliminate all risk in the world—or at least all the risks to the United States.

POLITICO’s “Morning Defense” reports that Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) is calling on Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to return to the practice of submitting to Congress the list of “unfunded requirements” (i.e., all those things that the military services would want if they were unconstrained by budgets—and reality). Then-SecDef Bob Gates eliminated the practice in 2009.

“By not providing an unfunded requirements list,” Hunter wrote in a letter to Hagel, “the department and all of the service chiefs would be suggesting that the budget provides zero risk.”

POLITICO continues:

Hunter’s letter reminded Morning D of a memorable exchange Hunter had with Gates in 2011. Basically, Hunter asked Gates how much money he’d need to reduce U.S. national security risk to zero.

“If I had a trillion dollar budget, I’d still have unfunded requirements. The services would still be able to come up with a list of things they really need,” Gates replied.

You can see a clip of the exchange here.

This exchange, and others like it, accurately describes the process of developing military requirements, notwithstanding Gates’ obvious skepticism. The legislation that calls on the Pentagon to produce a Quadrennial Defense Review every four years stipulates that the document not take budget numbers into account.

The end result is not a strategy document at all. It is a laundry list of horribles (without any sense of their likelihood) and an associated wish list of desired capabilities (without any sense that they will ever be used).

In the reality-based world, budgets compel prioritization—a differentiation between must haves and nice to haves. Inevitably, some things are left off the list entirely. The defenders of the current model don’t want that to happen (and are still busy adding to the list), so they don’t want economic considerations to be taken into account.

Dwight David Eisenhower, one of Gates’ heroes (and Hagel’s too), disagreed:

Our problem is to achieve adequate military strength within the limits of endurable strain upon our economy. To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another. (State of the Union Address, February 2, 1953)

What would it cost to eliminate all the risk in the world? The fact that the question is even asked tells us a lot about the dreadful state of this country’s strategic dialogue.