25 Jul 2016

On the Defense Budget

As a result of an interesting link on Hacker News, specifically to a post on Alex Wellerstein’s blog “Nuclear Secrecy” called “A brief history of the nuclear triad” – which is a good read and thoroughly recommended – I discovered the text of Herb York’s 1978 autobiography ‘Race to Oblivion: A Participant’s View of the Arms Race’ online as HTML. I can only hope that the online text is legal, because the book is otherwise unavailable except as used copies, and it is certainly still relevant.

The book seems to be typically only read or studied by those in classes dealing with arms control or strategic policy, which is a bit unfortunate as there’s quite a few gems in there, completely aside from the book’s stated purpose.

In particular, the author mentions something (in chapter 5, marked as page 91) about the defense budget that anyone who has worked in the Federal sphere can probably relate to:

Defense planning is full of arbitrary figures and figurings that have been thoroughly rationalized only after the fact. The number of units of many types of equipment is almost as arbitrary; so are the total numbers of men in the various services; and hence so is the total defense budget itself. I would say that the defense budget is arbitrary by at least a factor of two. The fierce arguments that can break out over a cut of, say, five percent have their origins in the very great difficulties of making changes in large traditionbound systems and not in the fact that the numbers as they originally stood were correct in any absolute sense. Thus, the real reason that this year’s defense budget is so and so many billion dollars is simply that last year’s defense budget was so and so many billion, give or take about five percent. The same thing, of course, applies to last year’s budget and the budget of the year before that. Thus the defense budget is not what it is for any absolute reason or because in any absolute sense the total cost of everything that is supposedly truly needed comes out to be precisely that amount, but rather it is the sum total of all the political influences that have been applied to it over a history of many years, and that have caused it to grow in the way that it has grown.

Or, to borrow the technical term, what York is suggesting is that the defense bureaucracy, viewed as a system, basically has a fixed slew rate. You can expand or contract the defense budget, but because the system itself resists change, it’s very rare to have the political will to change it by more than 5% or so per budget cycle. It further looks more than a bit suspicious for this slew rate to work out so roundly to 5%, a number that we find deliciously convenient on account of our five digits. It makes me wonder if this value isn’t chosen – consciously or otherwise – as the breaking point between the forces of change and forces of stability quite often in budget negotiations.

I’m not convinced that this relatively-low maximum slew rate is necessarily a bad thing, when you are dealing with an institution as large as the DoD: it would probably be bad if it were subject to political whims that could change the budget more greatly than they do from year to year, and the result would almost certainly be more favoritism, if not outright corruption, but it does present a significant challenge: with that limit taken on premise, if you want the budget to be a certain amount by a certain time, or if you want it to be focused on some set of priorities at some future date, you have to start pushing it in the right direction far in advance of the target.

That in combination with relatively short political-leadership cycles (which tend to be ~8 years in the Executive branch and not too much longer in the House side of the Legislative; the Senate is somewhat slower-moving, but not by orders of magnitude or anything) creates a problem to getting anything intelligent done at all, outside of a crisis. (Others may disagree, but I still have some faith in our institutional ability to react quickly when the chips are down; it’s just a hell of an expensive way to run a country.)

In the coming decades, I think the challenge for established nation-state actors in the face of new adversaries – particularly non-state actors like, but not necessarily limited to, terror groups – is going to be not letting those groups permanently outmaneuver them by getting inside the OODA loop of the established players to such an extent that they become unable to adequately respond.

The silver lining to this for the West, if it can be said to be much of one, is that there’s no evidence that the emerging superpower states such as China and India are any better at all of this, or have a faster organizational “slew rate”, than we do. On this issue, we’re all basically in the same boat, and it’s a very large, very massive, and very slow-to-maneuver one.

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