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By Anthony H. Cordesman

25 Feb 14. It does not take much vision to predict that Secretary Hagel and the Obama Administration’s FY2015 defense budget submissions are going to be the subject of bitter partisan criticism. It is an election year and virtually everything in Washington is already the subject of bitter partisan criticism. Playing the national security card is a perennial aspect of U.S. politics, as is playing it to court veterans, National Guard supporters, defense manufacturers, and the more doctrinaire conservatives.

The problem is that simply focusing on total spending levels does not address the critical problems in shaping our future defense posture and is not particularly relevant. Secretary Hagel’s focus on spending more than the Sequestration level in his February 24th speech announcing the FY2015 defense budget dodges around fundamental problems in the way we plan defense spending, but does any Republican focus on spending more without focusing on realistic costs or setting any meaningful goals for the future?

At the simplest level of budgetary planning, the Secretary’s budget statements ignore the fact that the Congressional Budget Office projects that the Department’s failure to manage the real-world rises in personnel, modernization, and readiness costs will have as negative an overall budget impact over time as Sequestration will. Ignoring the Department’s long history of undercosting its budget, its cost overruns, and the resulting cuts in forces, modernization, and readiness means one more year of failing to cope with reality. Presenting an unaffordable plan is as bad as failing to budget enough money.

The far more serious problem, however, is that Secretary Hagel fails to provide any meaningful picture of where the United States is going and of the defense posture it is trying to create. He focuses on current spending levels and not on any aspect of programming. He talks about cuts in personnel, equipment, and force strength in case-specific terms, but does not address readiness and does not address any plan or provide any serious details as to what the United States is seeking in terms of changes in its alliances and partnerships, and its specific goals in force levels, deployments, modernization, personnel, and readiness.
The Secretary states that, “We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power, and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States.” Fine, but how? Where? When? And to what end? Aside from vague generalities, the Secretary’s plans and sense of direction seem to go no further than getting through FY2016.

His speech also states that, “As we end our combat mission in Afghanistan, this will be the first budget to fully reflect the transition DoD is making for after 13 years of war – the longest conflict in our nation’s history.” Oh really? When there is no clear plan for transition in Afghanistan? When he makes no announcement about future spending on the war? And, when press accounts say that the OCO figure for future spending on the war that is not included in the Secretary’s total for Baseline Spending could be as high as $80 billion in FY2015 alone?

Worse, a careful reading of the speech indicates that the Secretary has no real spending plan even for FY2015. Consider what he really is saying about the status of FY2015 budgeting in the following passage:
Under the spending limits of the Bipartisan Budget Act, DoD’s budget is roughly $496 billion this Fiscal Year – or $31 billion below what the President requested. The law also limits DoD spending in Fiscal Year 2015 to $496 billion, which is $45 billion less than was projected in the President’s budget request last year. So while DoD welcomes the measure of relief and stability that

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