In chapter 7, “The Defense Budget Process,” of Resourcing the National Security Enterprise: Connecting the Ends and Means of US National Security, Tom McNaugher writes about how the budget process of the Department of Defense. McNaugher says that while the Department of Defense has “funded, over many decades, a remarkably effective military,” it has also funded “a great deal of duplication and inefficiency.” Below, McNaugher recommends that “Defense managers…maintain a very sharp sense of their priorities”:
Those unfamiliar with the defense budget process and watching it take place might marvel at a system of budgeting that brings so many considerations to bear on what might be expected to be straightforward strategic and technical decisions. Domestic political considerations, vastly differing views on defense policy, technical issues, and systems analyses all get rolled into a single budget. This is a complex business, and the marvel is that it has produced a remarkable force structure, sophisticated weapons, and an elaborate infrastructure, but at the same time a great deal of inefficiency and duplication.
Pentagon officials are likely to be less dazzled. To many of them, Congress is a nuisance; keeping members informed and keeping some of them happy are huge distractions from making analytically sound strategic policy. They would no doubt prefer to have more control over policy making and less interference. But that’s not going to happen. Congress isn’t going anywhere, and it certainly isn’t going to legislate constraints on its exercise of constitutionally enabled oversight into the defense budget. Besides, Robert Gates’s admonition that “we never once got it right” reminds us that no one—within or outside the Pentagon —has a monopoly on wisdom so far as US military strategy and force structure are concerned.
Pentagon officials have no choice but to deal with Congress, and the brief history outlined in this chapter suggests that they should do so with an eye for opportunities—the chance to shore up support, head off controversy if possible, and perhaps launch new initiatives. This makes managing defense a political undertaking far removed from the private sector world of bottom lines (short of war, at least) and executive power. But managing the DoD is not foreign territory; we have two centuries of experience with political management in the world the Founding Fathers created, over seventy years if one starts with the creation of the DoD in 1947. These tell us that, above all, political power in this system is a limited resource that can be spent, hoarded, or wasted. It does not grow on its own, and it is certainly not infinitely expandable. Defense managers have to maintain a very sharp sense of their priorities.”
Resourcing the National Security Enterprise: Connecting the Ends and Means of US National Security by Susan Bryant and Mark Troutman is available in hardcover, paperback, and digital editions. It is part of the Cambria Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security (RCCS) Series (General Editor: Dr. Geoffrey R.H. Burn).
Thomas L. McNaugher retired from the position of Senior Visiting Professor in the Security Studies Program of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in June 2018 but continues to teach courses there on the defense budget and the American Civil War. He began teaching at Georgetown University in 2011 after long stints at the RAND Corporation and the Brookings Institution. Dr. McNaugher’s books include Arms and Oil: US Military Strategy and the Persian Gulf and New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle.