Four Lessons that Should Upend the Pentagon’s Five-Year Strategy

Though many of today’s national-security discussions are focused on the war in Ukraine or congressional action on the 2023 budget, a far more important, strategic, and bureaucratic battle is taking place inside the Pentagon over the 2024 program build.

For those who are unfamiliar with Pentagon jargon and timelines: from January to July, the services build their five-year budget proposals, called “the Program.” Since the 2023 budget now lies with Congress, the armed services are currently building the 2024-29 Program, which will be submitted to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in July. The services build their program based upon the Defense Planning Guidance, detailed instructions and resource levels given to them by OSD. From August to November, the services defend these programs to the OSD staff, much in the same way as a doctoral candidate defends their thesesis. In December, the President’s Office of Management and Budget provides final topline financial guidance and in January, the budget goes to the printer to be submitted to Congress in February. (Of course, this schedule is in an ideal world.)

Today, the services are making their final programming decisions, such as which weapons are terminated, which force structure gets cut, and what levels of readiness they will maintain. Given what we are learning with the war in Ukraine, there are four crucial lessons to learn that would, if accepted, upend the current strategy that is underpinning the building of the defense budget.

First, we are likely to run out of bullets and weapons in a protracted, multi-front war. We now have two data points from wars both small in scope and scale that have shown us that it takes years to replenish expended munitions: the last decade’s war against ISIS, and the present war in Ukraine. This has been part of the Defense Department’s deliberate strategy to hope that “shock and awe” makes wars short. Wars are a test of wills, and if your adversary knows you will run out of munitions, they will find a way to hold on and fight until you are bare of bullets. The Russians are finding this out right now, but even three years ago, the National Defense Strategy Commission declared, “Nearly any conflict between the United States and its most capable competitors would entail significant demand for long-range, high precision munitions. Large quantities of shorter-range high-precision munitions will be needed, as well.”

What should DoD do? Invest billions of dollars in building out surge capacity for munitions and weapons. Right now, DoD is too concerned with the efficient, low-cost production of munitions and weapons, rather than ensuring that the arsenal of democracy has the surge, but more costly, capacity to ramp up production during a war. This will be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as running out of bullets during a war.

Second, prepare for war this decade, not just for war next decade. Secretary Robert Gates warned that the Pentagon has “next war-itis.” In the case of the current 2024 program-build, the strategy is to be prepared for war with China in 2030s by taking risk in the 2020s. This is seen, for example, in the proposal to spend nearly as much on research and development ($130 billion) as on procurement ($145 billion). But Russia has shown us that a declining power will strike sooner rather than later. Many believe that China’s growth is no longer assured, and this may make Beijing much more dangerous in 2027 than in 2037. The Pentagon’s current emphasis on future weapons over current weapons must be switched; that is, we should see much more money spent on current weapons at the expense of future weapon development. Importantly, if you spend more on procuring fieldable weapons now, many of the supply-chain issues experienced today will improve. Conversely, if DoD remains focused on future development, the supply chain will only get weaker as actual production lines wither in an effort to research and prototype rather than manufacture and produce.

Third, nuclear modernization, while critical to our deterrence, must not be done at the expense of the conventional force. Russia is nuclear-strong and conventionally weak. This posture, as we now see, heightens the chance of nuclear war, not reduce it. The bills associated with the deferred modernization of the US nuclear triad are nearly $1 trillion. Without additional funding, we risk becoming a modernized nuclear power with limited capacity in our conventional forces. Our Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force are already too small. The recapitalization of the triad is important, but it should be done with additional funding from OMB, not from internal spending cuts to the conventional forces to foot the triad’s bill.

Finally, inflation might do more damage to our fighting force than has been done by any enemy or even the last decade’s period of sequestration. It appears that the US might be on track for a two-to-three-year cumulative jump of nearly 20 percent. To put that into context, this is the same as reducing the defense budget by $160 billion. From first denying there was rampant inflation early last year, to insisting it was simply transitory, then claiming it really would not affect the Pentagon, the administration is seriously misguiding Congress and the public. We now see reports of contractors wanting to walk away from fixed-cost contracts and negotiating large increases in the future, longer-term contracts to ensure that they are compensated for inflation as well. If left unaddressed, inflation will hollow out the force, just like it did in 1979. OMB must provide DoD with the increased funding, even though this will be politically unpalatable.

Taken together, a non-resilient supply chain, reduced procurement of current weapons, trading conventional forces for nuclear forces, and underestimating inflation’s impact will certainly lead to a future military disaster and embolden our adversaries to act sooner than later. OMB and OSD can and should immediately take steps to address this decline and they should do it today, before the services complete their program builds. It is easy to sit around and mock the state of the Russian military, but it is much harder to look in a mirror and wonder what part of the experiences the Russians are having would be similar for us if we engaged in a large-scale war . The resourcing strategy that was put together before the war in Ukraine, coupled with record-high inflation, cannot be accepted as correct. Instead, our defense-resourcing strategy needs to be updated, informed by the four lessons above, to ensure we do not meet the fate of the Russian army. We owe the American people nothing less.

John Ferrari is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). A retired three-star Army general, he has served as the US Army’s director of program analysis and evaluation.

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