Analysis & Opinions - Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Military Needs Budget Certainty in Uncertain Times

| October 20, 2015

As they stood watch for our security around the world last month, the men and women of the Defense Department were also watching another development closer to home: whether the U.S. Congress would vote to keep the federal government open.

A short-term stopgap measure called a continuing resolution eventually passed, but it funded the military for just 10 more weeks. What does it say to our adversaries when we take a paycheck-to-paycheck approach to our nation’s defense? What does it say to our friends?

For the seventh year in a row, Congress has failed to pass a defense appropriations bill in time to start the fiscal year. And for the past four years, the Defense Department and other federal agencies have been struggling with the impact of sequestration, which imposed cuts that were never meant to be implemented, but were supposed to prod both parties to come together and reach a budget agreement. The Defense Department has done its best to manage through this prolonged period of budget uncertainty, making painful choices and trade-offs among the size, capabilities and readiness of the joint force.

The nation cannot allow this to become the new normal. While Washington struggles to get its house in order, the challenges around the world continue. China continues its dubious and destabilizing land-reclamation activities in the South China Sea. Islamic State continues its barbarous campaign. Russia continues to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine and pour gasoline on the Syrian conflict.

In this uncertain security environment, the U.S. military needs to be agile and dynamic. What it has now is a straitjacket. At the Defense Department, we are forced to make hasty reductions when choices should be considered carefully and strategically.

At the same time, where we have proposed measured, smart decisions to generate vital savings by consolidating our health-care plans, retiring legacy aircraft and unmodernized ships, or reviewing military bases to reduce excess capacity, Congress has repeatedly advanced defense-policy measures that limit or reject these hard decisions, amounting to yet another budget cut.

A climate of indiscriminate cuts and budget turbulence is managerially inefficient and therefore actually wasteful to taxpayers and industry. It’s dangerous for military strategy. Frankly, it’s embarrassing around the world. And it is deeply dispiriting to the U.S. military’s talented people and their families.

We need to innovate, to continue to attract the best people, to develop the next generation of capabilities, and to meet a current generation of threats. America’s military excellence is neither a birthright nor a guarantee.

Without a negotiated budget solution to which everyone finally agrees, we will again return to sequestration-level funding, reducing discretionary spending to its lowest real level in a decade. Members of both parties agree that this will harm national security.

The alternative to a budget deal, a long-term continuing resolution, is merely sequester-level funding under another name. And the longer a continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes. If Congress chooses to pursue this path for a full year, the Defense Department will be $38 billion short of the funding level the Joint Chiefs and I have determined is needed to restore the readiness of today’s force after more than a decade of war, while investing in vital new capabilities for the future.

Unfortunately, the latest defense-policy bill being advanced by Congress includes all-too-familiar limits on vital reforms. For instance, it restricts us from retiring older, less-capable or lower-priority systems. And it merely papers over the defense-funding shortfall caused by sequestration, transferring funds from the regular budget into the department’s war-funding accounts to evade the Budget Control Act’s limitations. This budget maneuver leaves the military with no reasonable basis for the long-term planning and investments needed to keep our forces modern and relevant.

Meanwhile, it would set us on a course to lock in sequestration for non-defense programs vital to our national security including diplomatic, law enforcement, homeland security and financial tools that keep our nation safe. For these and other reasons, the president is vetoing this legislation.

The damage that our national defense faces is entirely avoidable. The budget sent to Congress would ensure that we field a modern, ready force in a balanced way, while embracing reform, because we understand that asking for more taxpayer dollars requires that we ensure that every dollar is well spent.

I appeal to Congress to act on a long-term budget deal that will let America’s troops and their families know we have the commitment and resources to see them succeed, and send a global message that the United States will continue to plan and build for the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ashton B..“The U.S. Military Needs Budget Certainty in Uncertain Times.” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2015.