The Data Corner: Defense Drawdown, Hollow Forces, and the Utility of the Earmark
By: Greg Sanders
The Department of Defense is confronting the end of steady growth in its budgets. In a recent speech at CSIS, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall stated that the uncertainty and front-loaded nature of sequestration is creating an environment that is “probably the worst time I’ve seen…in terms of our ability to do a sound plan and execute it.” At the same event, defense acquisition experts spoke of the possibility of a “hollow” force: a military that is less capable than budget figures or troop counts would indicate. Compounding the effects of sequestration, internal cost growth factors are sapping the military’s buying power.
A hollow force is not inevitable. CSIS’s forthcoming report U.S. Department of Defense Contract Spending and the Supporting Industrial Base, 2000–2012 (see our methodology) found evidence of shepherding of resources even as contract obligations for research and development (R&D) fell from 2009 to 2012. These cuts were driven by the cancellation of several large programs, such as the Future Combat System. Pursuing across-the-board program cuts as an alternative to a few “big kills” may be an easier path to higher short-term savings. However, as Kendall’s empirically grounded defense acquisition performance report shows, such sweeping program changes will cause cost growth in the long term.
So, how might Congress address this issue? Predictability of future budgets and flexibility in implementing sequester-level cuts will be critical to preserving real military capability. The return of congressional earmarks may also help, according to a panel of former House and Senate Appropriations Committee staffers. This is perhaps an unsurprising proposal coming from former Capitol Hill denizens, but the political science research bears them out. In 2008, only $17.2 billion in spending was directed by earmarks. In monetary terms, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that eliminating the sequester in 2014 would grow the economy by two to ten times that amount. If you think earmarks are expensive, remember that a dysfunctional legislature is far worse.