It was a little like winning the lottery – but only a million dollars.
Money poured into the Pentagon as the defense budget nearly doubled over the past 10 years, and the building bought Camaros, dirt bikes and vacations to Cancun like the money would never run out.
Well, OK, that’s not where the money went. But, outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen told business executives in Washington on Thursday, there was little fiscal discipline over the past decade.
“In that growth over the course of the last 10 years, we haven’t had to do the analysis, haven’t had to make the tough decisions, we haven’t had to prioritize,” he said.
But with the crushing reality of the national debt looming, he said, the party is over.
“We are now in the center of having to do all that, and to get it right – and still fighting in two places, and still challenged in many parts of the world,” he said.
Cutting budgets in the Pentagon is different – and harder – than in the private sector, he told members of the Business Executives for National Security group.
One key difference is that the Pentagon has massive capital-expenditure needs looming that have been brought on by 10 years of nonstop fighting.
Dealing with personnel costs is more complicated for DOD as well, he said. No one wants “to break faith” with veterans rightfully expecting certain benefits, he said. And Congress will make sure any proposed benefit changes run a gantlet. Nevertheless, upcoming commitments to incoming servicemembers have to be looked at closely in light of fiscal needs, Mullen told the group. Tricare fees may need to be raised as well, he said.
Finally, he said, the sometimes competing needs of the various services, and the fights that can result, will complicate budget cutting if the Pentagon does not adopt a wise strategy to find the right balance for the future.
“If we’re not careful in our choices, this budget drawdown could set back the jointness, and as a result set back our readiness,” he said. “And if we’re not thoughtful in our strategy, we might also end up with the wrong force at the wrong time.”