Robert O. Work, former undersecretary of the Navy, and current chief executive officer, Center for a New American Security, spoke frankly about the state of the military’s financial circumstances and shared his opinion about the next steps. The final keynote speaker at East: Joint Warfighting 2013 at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, Virginia, pointed out that this is not the first time the U.S. military has felt a budget crunch and the time for sounding the alarm has not yet arrived. Explaining that fiscal year 2013 is only the third year of a drawdown in funding, Work stated that the cuts have not yet bottomed out.
The most troubling issue may be that the bottom is not yet clearly apparent. However, Work predicted that tight budgets are likely to be around for the next four to nine years, unless something, such as another large national security threat, occurs to change it.
One difference between past and today’s budget cuts is the existence of the all-volunteer military. Personnel expenses are among the highest cost to the U.S. Defense Department. During the Vietnam era, troops were more than willing to leave the service when their military stint was up. However, today, the combination of more opportunities and the country’s economic crisis has resulted in service members who voluntarily joined the military staying in. To add to this conundrum, the department does not want to ask any of these talented, bright people to leave, so the cost of maintaining the military will remain high.
Attempting to balance the budget between what Congress is willing to approve and what the military needs to operate solely by implementing efficiencies “is a bunch of crap,” Work said. “It’s not as easy as people think.” Cutting procurement and research and development spending is the worst approach, he added, because these will only lead to larger expenditures in the future.
Work proposed that what is needed is a combination of technological and managerial innovation. Experimentation must take place not only in how to use new capabilities but also in ways to reorganize the command and troop structure. For example, new experimental military units comprising different types of organizations could result in a better way of conducting operations.
Weathering the storm of budget constraints will require the military to focus on the most important aspects of its mission as the defenders of the nation. “In this period, if we do not prioritize, we’re done,” Work said.