Think Before You Cut

Over the next six months, somewhere between $400 billion and $1.15 trillion dollars in national security spending will likely be cut from the U.S. budget. The numbers are so staggering that they almost defy imagination, but this is the cold, hard reality that must be faced. And the stakes are huge: How America’s national security leaders approach the debate over these defense cuts will do much to determine whether the United States remains capable of sustaining its global commitments in the coming decades.

The discussion so far does not inspire confidence. Politicians and pundits are still debating whether defense cuts are warranted — an argument that ignores the fact that the debt-ceiling deal has already sliced $400 billion from national security. Like it or not — and to be clear, I don’t like it at all — this train has already left the station. And the only thing standing between another $750 billion in mandatory cuts is the slim hope that the new congressional “super committee” will show the gumption to focus on the tough tax and entitlement reforms necessary to solve the deficit problem and that the rest of Congress will show the maturity to approve such a reform package. Unfortunately, Congress’s actions so far indicate its failure to do so is not just possible, but likely.

At the same time, the other focus of the discussion has jumped to which defense programs should be cut. Whether it is in think-tank reports, budget proposals, or politicians’ and flag officers’ speeches, various plans are being aired that describe certain military programs as “wasteful” or “critical” and therefore should or should not be eliminated. This, however, puts the cart before the horse. The United States shouldn’t jump into arguing over specific warplanes, brigades, or aircraft carriers before locking in the principles that will guide how to go about it smartly. The process policymakers decide on now will determine the outcome and whether the cuts to the defense budget represent a successful exercise in strategic reorientation or end up hollowing the military and endangering vital U.S. national security objectives across the globe. Here are 10 suggested rules to guide the coming decisions:

  1. First, cut the chatter.
  2. Focus on effectiveness, not efficiency.
  3. Question 20th-century assumptions about warfare and U.S. national security.
  4. Achieve intellectual buy-in from senior defense leaders and experts.
  5. Follow Sutton’s law.
  6. Understand that it’s sometimes necessary to spend money to save money.
  7. Interdependence is a friend; redundancy is an enemy.
  8. Keep your friends inside the tent.
  9. Learn to live with strategic risks.
  10. Appreciate that the military budget will have to adapt to real-world events.

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