CNAS Hard Choices report is a good start – but much follow-up is needed

Last week, the Center for a New American Security released Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity. The looming crunch in the defense budget -- and how policymakers, the military, and the defense industry will cope – has been the top issue in defense analysis for at least a year. However, the ensuing discussion about the Pentagon’s budget problems has been surprisingly vague. Unlike other recent analyses, including those produced by various deficit cutting panels (Bowles-Simpson, Rivlin-Domenici, etc.) CNAS’s report lays out the strategic context and objectives U.S. policymakers face, presents specific budget scenarios, and computes dollars and quantities for budget line items. Most crucially, the authors discuss the risks and consequences that come with the report’s four increasingly onerous budget cases.

CNAS’s report arrives just as the Congress’s budget “super-committee” meets in an attempt to head off the automatic trigger that would impose defense budget cuts that exceed Hard Choices’ worst case scenario. Policymakers will now have in hand a report from a respected defense think-tank that alerts them to the strategic consequences that could result should the budget process once again break down on Capitol Hill.

With the early-August debt ceiling legislation revealing a little clarity about the budget path ahead, the CNAS staff was under much time pressure to deliver a product that would be relevant to the debate leading up to the next budget milestone at Thanksgiving. As useful as Hard Choices is, it is still just a summary of the deeper implications policymakers and the Pentagon face regarding strategy, defense planning, and risk tradeoffs over the next few years.

Future reports, produced either by CNAS or other defense think tanks, should be even more explicit at discussing which operational deployments and tempos the services will (and will not) be able to sustain under various cases, which specific low and medium priority missions would no longer be supportable (and the regional consequences of such cancellations), and which portions of the defense industrial base would likely dry up. Equally important, future reports should discuss how future force structure options would attempt to respond to illustrative crisis scenarios. Policymakers would benefit from seeing this analytical work before they make critical budget decisions.

Hard Choices is thus only the first of what should be an increasingly deep and detailed analysis of the strategic choices and risks U.S. policymakers and defense planners will have to cope with in the years ahead. The work of CNAS and other defense thinkers is just beginning.

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