When Budgets Plunge

By Brown, John S. | Army, April 2013 | Go to article overview

When Budgets Plunge


Brown, John S., Army


Historically Speaking

I have been looking at a thoroughly intimidating PowerPoint slide provided by Army staff entitled "Effects of FY13 [Fiscal Year 2013] Fiscal Uncertainty on Army OMA [Operations and Maintenance, Army] Accounts." By the time you read this article, political and administrative deliberations may well have changed the numbers and details on this slide - perhaps for the better, perhaps not. The slide suggests a shortfall of about $18 billion, or 23 percent. Even if this were halved, it still would exceed the percentile reduction of the overall Army budget in 1975, the year we terminated ground operations in Vietnam. Anyone who remembers buying a Coke for a nickel knows how perilous it is trying to compare budget deliberations across time, but the past can inform the present, even on this complexityfraught ground. For your consideration, I make five observations: We have been here before; budget cuts have strategic implications; we forfeit the future first; recovery must be planned rather than wished for; and austerity makes education even more important.

We Have Been Here Before

The U.S. Army Center of Military History's Kevlar Legions: The Transformation of the U.S. Army, Ì989-2005 contains a foldout chart entitled "The Army Budget, 1905-2005 (Annual Percent Change)." The chart is premised on the notion that one can't reliably compare budgets across time. The relative value of money with respect to particular types of line items changes irregularly, and the Army, in any given era, pays for different things in different proportions. These perturbations count for far less year by year, however. Thus it is valid to compare percentile increases and decreases in budgets across broad spans of time, even if it makes less sense to directly compare two budgets separated by a decade or more.

Following this logic, we find our budget dropped about 24 percent coming out of the Philippine insurrection; plunged 72 percent the year after World War I and averaged a further drop of 45 percent in each of the following two years; dropped 45 percent and then 67 percent in the two years following World War II; dropped 20 percent in each of the two years following the Korean War; averaged a 10 percent decrement in each of the five years coming out of Vietnam; and dropped nearly 20 percent followed by 15 percent and 8 percent each year after Operation Desert Storm, respectively. Bear in mind that the post- World War I decrement followed a whopping 1,288 percent increase, and the post- World War ? decrement followed three years of increases averaging 365 percent. The largest recent increase in the Army's budget was 37 percent in 2003 and was largely absorbed by unprogrammed requirements in Iraq. The budget cuts being contemplated now will be historically significant and comparable to those of earlier watershed events.

Budget Cuts Have Strategic Implications

Each spate of budget cuts just described was associated with a profound change in strategic posture. The period following World War I was associated with isolationism and an acceptance of military incapacity outside our hemisphere. Following World War II, we were mesmerized by the prospect that atomic monopoly made ground warfare obsolete - until we lost the monopoly and North Korea embarrassed us on the ground. Following the Korean War, we reverted to the ostensibly cheaper, nuclear-heavy "New Look," which proved less than helpful in Vietnam. Following Vietnam, we cut more gently but over a longer period and ended up with the "Hollow Army." After Desert Storm, we dismantled and deactivated our massive forward presence in Europe while enhancing the strategic mobility of the residual force; on balance, this worked. The slide "Effects of FY13 Fiscal Uncertainty on Army OMA Accounts" and its supporting documents communicate considerable detail but less of a big picture. What are the long-term strategic implications of the economies it describes?

We Forfeit the Future First

Notably and laudably, "Effects of FY13 Fiscal Uncertainty on Army OMA Accounts" expresses a firm intent not to compromise ongoing missions. …

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