Martin E. Dempsey, DOD: Military Strategy Drives Budget Decisions

December 14, 2011

The Defense Department considers strategy and capabilities as key factors in budget decisions that will cut $450 billion over the next 10 years, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

During a conversation with Washington author and columnist David Ignatius at the Atlantic Council, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey discussed the process of shaping the DOD budget.

Crafting the fiscal 2013 to 2017 Pentagon budget means looking at it through the lens of defense strategy, Dempsey said. Even if the U.S. military had a blank check, he said, there would still be pressure to transform.

“We have learned an enormous amount over the past 10 years of war,” the general said.

A “flush” U.S. military with plenty of money would want to look at strategy, force structure, modernization programs, training and leader development, the chairman. But in the current fiscally constrained environment, he added, this will be imperative.

Pentagon leaders also will look at strategic risks to the United States, Dempsey said. “Are they exactly where they were before, or are they shifting?” he asked.

President Barack Obama said during his latest trip to Asia that the United States will focus more on the Pacific region in the coming years, the chairman noted.

“We see the strategic risks as shifting. Demographics are shifting, economic power is shifting, military power is shifting,” he explained. “It is incumbent on us as military leaders to discuss with and advise as to how we should adjust ourselves to these strategic shifts.”

Envisioned threats facing the United States and its allies also influence how defense dollars are allocated, he said.

“I’m not prepared, nor should our allies be prepared, to ignore or wish away any kind of conflict in the future,” Dempsey said. “That’s just not the way the world works.”

U.S. military planners, for example, cannot say whether there will be another operation the size of the one wrapping up in Iraq. The military may be called upon to provide a force of 200,000 again, Dempsey said, but is going to have to provide that capability with less money.

Dempsey stressed this shift cannot be done at the risk of America’s traditional strategic partners. “If the United States went to war, we would still call on our close NATO allies,” he said.

Providing a force that can handle full-spectrum operations, the chairman said, is a priority.

“So the question is how do we reset the force so that it is not a niche organization -- not a one-trick pony,” he said. “We have to be capable in a new fiscal environment.”

Economics is now a necessary skill for defense leaders, the chairman said. Dempsey joked that before he took over as chairman, he visited the economics faculty at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and said he was sorry. “I’m sorry I didn’t pay attention here when I was a cadet,” he said he told the professors.

Since he became chairman, Dempsey said, he has focused on understanding the new economic situation of the nation and understanding that U.S. national power is the sum of military, economic and diplomatic powers. He has met with economic experts in academia, with Federal Reserve officials in New York and with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke at the Pentagon.

“This is about rebalancing,” Dempsey said. I’m encouraged that we have a process where strategy is slightly in the lead of our budget decisions.” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has made it clear that “nothing is decided until everything is decided,” said he added.

The budget will be released in February, but defense leaders will discuss the strategy underpinning the budgetary decisions in January. Panetta and other defense leaders will talk publicly in January about the strategy, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters today.

“This is something that he thinks is extremely important to convey to the American people,” Little said. “In light of the hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts that we’re confronting, he understands that we need to discuss with the American people what the U.S. military of the 21st century is going to do, at least in the near term, and what some of the trade-offs might need to be.”

Little, too, stressed that strategy leads the budget.

“It’s about the capabilities of the U.S. military and the threats that we continue to face as a nation,” he said.

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