The Pentagon builds its budgets in five-year plans, much as the Soviet Union once did

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

The Pentagon builds its budgets in five-year plans, Christian Brose notes (in The Kill Chain), much as the Soviet Union once did:

Once the Pentagon starts paying for people, places, and things, it has to keep paying for them. This means that the majority of the money that the Department of Defense plans to get in future years has already been obligated by past decisions. And once those programs get started, it is incredibly difficult to stop them, because of how many stakeholders in and out of our government benefit from continuing them at all costs.


Of the limited future money that remains unspoken for, the process to plan how to spend it begins nearly two years before the Pentagon actually receives a dollar of that money from Congress.


In that gap of time, entirely new technologies are developed. Brand new companies are founded. And the Pentagon cannot plan to take advantage of any of them, so it programs its future money toward capabilities and technologies that it knows about now, which makes it exceedingly difficult to be dynamic, adaptive, and responsive to unforeseen conditions.


What’s more, if the Pentagon wants to shift, or “reprogram,” any of this funding for other purposes, it often requires permission from four different congressional committees, and the total amount of money that the Pentagon is allowed to reprogram in a given year is roughly .5 percent of its budget.


As each layer of bureaucracy was added to govern the sprawling defense enterprise, some power shifted to the top. But much of this was power on paper. In reality, most power still remains at lower levels, concentrated ironically in what are known within the largest non-democratic institution in America as “communities of interest.”


What this means, in practice, is that countless decisions affecting enormous amounts of defense spending are made by entrenched parochial interests spread around the Department of Defense that have neither the authority nor the incentive to make bold moves that change America’s defense program. This leads the Pentagon’s many communities of interest to view their senior leaders, who come and go every few years, as tantamount to part-time employees who are not around long enough to really matter—or, as a friend in one of those communities once put it to me, “the Christmas help.”


Military servicemembers are only in a given job for a few years before they rotate to another one. In that short time, they are rarely rewarded for rocking the boat or raising problems up the chain, least of all when their complaints regard the failure of their own institutions to do new things or adopt new technologies for which few people as yet see a need. Such disruptions are more often viewed by the powers that be, who manage military careers, as a reason to doubt whether a person is a team player who deserves a top job in the next promotion cycle. Those who are rewarded are people who shepherd the existing programs of their respective communities of interest through the budget process with as little change as possible.


The Navy fixates on “ship count.” The Air Force fixates on its number of squadrons. The Army fixates on its “end strength,” the number of soldiers in its ranks. And the Marine Corps has traditionally fixated on amphibious ships.


For example, despite decades of progress in unmanned aviation, both the Navy and Air Force are planning to spend billions of dollars to develop new, manned fighter jets that they expect to deliver to the force many years from now.


Both services are also developing autonomous aircraft, but they are limiting them to missions centered around traditional, manned fighter jets—refueling them, in the case of the Navy, and defending them, in the case of the Air Force.


The truth is that Congress has considerable power to correct the failings and oversights of the Department of Defense and the defense industrial base, but Congress too often uses its awesome powers for things that just do not matter that much to the future effectiveness of our military. It is hard not to think that this is related, in some way, to the significant reduction in the number of members of Congress with military experience, which is roughly half of what it was thirty years ago, which contributes to a growing unfamiliarity with the US military among the very people charged with overseeing it.



  1. VXXC says:

    Then budget properly, DC style.

    The answer is for the DOD to get budgeted automatically as Social Security, Medicare, and Debt Service are budgeted. It’s automatic, and Congress can’t touch the above. Here’s your 15% of the budget; now manage it, and we’ll do oversight. ;)

    Guns should at least have the same level of good governance as butter.

    This would stop or greatly mitigate the mischief described above. It would also put all the Broses out of a job, or at least most of them, and ease the pain on the eyes and ears of those of us who put the work in.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    VXXC: “The answer is for the DOD to get budgeted automatically …”

    It is probably not as simple as that. The underlying issue is one that affects a lot more than the military, and even a lot more than the Federal Behemoth — bureaucrazy!

    It seems that any organization which starts out with a clear focus and achieves great things eventually gets lost in its own importance. NASA is a clear example today. Some have suggested that the solution would be to terminate any organization after a certain number of years — say, 20 years — and then rebuild a new organization from the grass roots. But it is tough to see how that could be done for the military and its supply chains.

  3. VXXC says:


    It’s that simple for Social Security and Medicare and debt service. That is budget policy. They are automatic. They can’t be touched. Put the baseline military budget of 15% in the same status.

    That’s why the military is in the “discretionary” 1/3 of the budget and why it must compete with the other priorities like fake solar panels.

    As for your quest for focus and great things, you really shouldn’t look at government…

  4. Bruce says:

    I have yet to see a proposal for, say, just stuffing ten big supply ships with a quarter million drones apiece and having them drive in circles near trouble spots. But if the Air Force Academy has been sending half its grads to drones for twenty years, as the ringknockers do their twenty there’s got to be some institutional clout behind that sort of thing.

  5. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    >Military servicemembers are only in a given job for a few years before they rotate to another one.

    The specter of atomism wreaks perfidy in all aspects of society.

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