The SMU Tower Center held its eighth annual National Security Symposium titled, “National Defense: Budgets, Resources and Readiness,” featuring two panels each comprised of three experts and a moderator April 11. With the recent release of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and the budget for fiscal year 2018, the panelists had plenty to dissect in their presentations. Here’s what we learned from the discussions.
National Defense: Budget and Resources
The FY 2018 budget passed in October allocated roughly $700 billion to the Department of Defense. “That’s a lot of money,” said panelist Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The question she’s focused on answering, though, is whether it’s enough money to buy Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ National Defense Strategy (NDS). Eaglen said that while Washington approved of Mattis’ strategy, she’s unsure of whether or not the budget will fund it. Despite $700 billion being a lot of money, when you adjust for inflation it’s really flat a budget, she said.
For General Craig McKinley (U.S. Air Force, Ret), the most important line in the NDS was: “The American military has no pre-ordained right to victory on the battlefield.” McKinley said this highlights the idea that the U.S. needs to continue to spend to keep up its advantage and lethality–these things are not guaranteed.
“This is a poke in the stomach to those who have taken American invincibility for granted,” McKinley said. While the U.S. military is the strongest he’s ever seen, he argued it needs updating and routine maintenance to stay at that level.
Dennis Ippolito, professor of political science and chair of the political science department at SMU, presented concerns for the defense budget in the long term. Ippolito stressed the fact that although deficits have been a persistent problem in the U.S. budget since the 1960s, publicly held debt has only skyrocketed in the last decades. From 2000 to 2012 publicly held debt rose from 30 percent of the GDP to 70 percent.
The defense budget takes up roughly 3.1 percent of the GDP, but Ippolito said that the projected 10-year defense budget will change that, setting the budget down to around 2.6 percent, a level the U.S. hasn’t seen since the close of World War II. The source of the dire budget situation: We’ve been in a political stalemate since the 1980s, Ippolito said. The government is funded with Democratic policy spending levels, but has been receiving Republican-level taxes.
There is no real support to cut spending on social security and Medicare/Medicaid, which is what is needed to reduce the mandatory spending portion of the budget that is now at 89 percent of the total government budget. There also isn’t any real support from Democratic representatives to raise taxes. This stalemate produces chronic debt.
National Defense: Readiness
The most dire potential shortcoming of the newly allocated $700 billion budget is its inability to support military readiness. Admiral Patrick Walsh (US Navy, Ret), Senior Fellow at the Tower Center, opened the panel arguing that the U.S. is increasingly at a risk of major conflict, especially following the chemical attack in Douma, Syria and Russia continuing to defend and protect the Assad regime.
Drawing from his experience in crisis management (Admiral Walsh led Operation Tomodachi, the US Armed Forces assistance operation to support Japan in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami), Walsh said that it’s most important to think horizontally. He didn’t just look to people under him to solve problems when he was in the field. He knew he needed the best, and so he kept an open mind in resourcing the operation. Walsh argues the Department of Defense should do the same to ensure readiness. The private sector and government should collaborate and align their own red lines.
Gen. James Boozer (U.S. Army, Ret) agreed with Walsh. “Short-sightedness is more dangerous than ever,” he said, especially as China continues to innovate at a break-neck pace.
Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis at Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained budget constraints and how they put readiness at risk. The Budget Control Act of 2011 placed caps on the amount of money that could be allotted to the defense budget. However, under President Obama and now under President Trump, the House has voted to raise the caps to allow for the proposed budgets. But the Department of Defense has another loophole it can use to get more funding. The caps only apply to the base defense budget, not to Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) funding.
The DoD started reclassifying spending as OCO to get around the caps to help fund efforts in Afghanistan in 2014. This isn’t a stable funding plan, Harrison said. Meanwhile, as defense spending continues to rise, active duty end strength has slightly declined or remained stable since the ’90s. This threatens defense readiness, he said. Harrison suggested a few fixes, including growing the force, being more efficient with spending, and reassessing all the U.S.’s strategic commitments.
The National Security Symposium ended with a keynote dinner address from the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen. Admiral Mullen called for strong leadership from younger generations to take on the country’s growing problems. “We have got to start listening to each other. I don’t see another way out of this,” he said.