America’s more than 60 allies and partners remain its greatest security asset in deterring conflict with China and Russia as well as its greatest commitment if war breaks out,” the author of “How to be a ‘Cheap Hawk’ in the 2020s” said Wednesday.
Michael O’Hanlon, director of research at the Brookings Institution, said since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union “we’ve seen a lot of countries want to get in” alliances, like NATO, and partnerships with the United States.
The U.S. has a lot of places where it will need to fight, O’Hanlon said. It is the reality facing administrations, Congress and the Pentagon, which need to plan what to invest in for the future and what to retain in the arsenal and inventory from the current force.
That includes setting a strategy and budget, while also determining who would be likely adversaries versus allies and partners and “what does this war look like,” O’Hanlon said.
Defense spending in the coming fiscal year likely will be near $900 billion.
Alliances and partnerships “are a mixed bag in financial terms,” but worth the price strategically, he said, making the case for 1 percent real growth in defense spending above the rate of inflation.
The underlying idea behind O’Hanlon’s latest monograph “is to spend enough … to be in a robust position” so “Russia and China don’t see a Pearl Harbor opportunity” to strike hard and early “to do their dirty business” in their neighborhoods, he said.
“The ultimate goal is to make them believe it’s not worth the fight,” O’Hanlon said.
Instead of a National Defense Strategy of being prepared to fight two wars nearly simultaneously, O’Hanlon said the shift to the one-war strategy eliminates some of the hedge planners could use in a budget if conflict broke out.
Travis Sharp, who heads defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, said the Pentagon “needs to show taxpayers [that] we’re trying to be more efficient.”
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said all too often when looking at reforming the Pentagon’s budget eyes are focused on weapons systems without taking into account other costs including personnel, long-term maintenance and advances in software.
Approximately $300 billion will be programmed into acquisition and research and development when the budget clears Congress.
In addition, “the military is the Super Wal-Mart [of the federal government] that everyone presses the button for” in contingencies, Eaglen said. She used counter-drug operations and protecting the border as examples. O’Hanlon added almost $100 billion in the requested Pentagon budget will go toward intelligence, much of it through the Air Force and Space Force for satellites.
The important question the panelists agreed upon is “what can be reformed?”
Eaglen said reformers must take a broader view of the budget rather than individual line items.
“You have to build coalitions” in the administration, across the political parties in Congress “and with service organizations” to succeed in achieving big changes, she said.
Large reform issues will cost money upfront before savings are realized, Eaglen said, highlighting base closures and realignment. It costs the Defense Department to shutter an installation or modernize facilities at another. The higher costs could continue for three to five years, she added.
Sharp said an excellent guide to serious reform efficiency lay in former Comptroller Robert Hale’s monograph, “Promoting Efficiency in the Department of Defense: Keep Trying, But Be Realistic.”
O’Hanlon warned against cutting the compensation packages offered service members in all-volunteer force when recruiting is proving especially difficult.
About 30 percent of next year’s budget will go to military pay, housing and allowances. Department civilians’ pay comes from the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance accounts. He recommended examining headquarters positions now staffed by service members to see if they could be filled by civilians. He estimated there were up to 300,000 service members in those kinds of assignments. Such a move would put more manpower in operational units.
On lessons from the war in Ukraine, Sharp said it shows the need “for a degree of balance, not becoming overly committed to the highest technology” to prevail in combat.
“You’ve got to make sure your command and control remains intact” after the first strike, O’Hanlon said was a takeaway. “It’s more about resilience.”