If politics have become a zero-sum game, then budgets are now seen less as an expression of policy intent and more as a scorecard.
There is no better example than the White House’s fiscal 2014 budget for the Defense Department. The request of $526.6 billon marks a week where winners and losers are portrayed as emerging in the face of tighter Pentagon spending.
It is indeed very important what happens to funding for specific weapons programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or how much pay will increase for active duty service members. The administration wants to spend $8.4 billion on the F-35 in 2014, or about the same amount as is spent on missile defense, while military pay and benefits will account for a third of this budget request. Cutbacks are already impacting readiness, as the military’s service chiefs repeatedly said. To that end, the Air Force said this week it was going to ground one third of its active-duty fleet of combat aircraft.
It is also important to remember that a White House’s budget request is just the start of a longer process of figuring out how much to spend, and on what. As Congressional appropriators are fond of reminding: The White House proposes, Congress disposes. Expect the acquisitions portion of the Pentagon budget request, $167.6 billion, to be heavily contested.
Amid the intense focus on cutbacks and incremental boosts in spending, this is an opportune moment to step back and take a look at the country’s strengths and weakness from a broader point of view.
America’s strength and ability to project power in the 21st Century is influenced by myriad factors beyond the number of F-16s able to fly combat missions at any given moment. The country’s ability to compete in the global economy, to attract the world’s brightest and to nurture a functional and responsive political system are more important to U.S. national security than ever. Seen this way, how the next fiscal year’s budget’s will impact American competitiveness becomes very significant.
Take the defense industrial base, one of the pillars of American competitiveness. With spending in flux, it offers a test of public and private sector resolve to improve our economic capability and innovation edge while also strengthening our national security.
Addressing how cuts to training and other areas will impact the country’s military capabilities, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey conceded this week there are some significant unknowns: “We don’t know yet the full impact or the cost of recovery from readiness shortfalls this fiscal year.”
The same could be said about the ultimate fate of the defense industrial base.
Whether the defense industrial base is itself a winner or a loser depends on more than any budget line item for fiscal 2014. Its long-term future is in the hands of leaders in industry and officials in government who must be mindful of America’s competitive position as they approach the challenges ahead.