Zero Growth — Or Worse

Jan. 1, 1986

In October, Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, Air Force Chief of Staff, told Air Force Association symposium audience in Los Angeles that “over the past five years, we have rebuilt our defenses because enough dollars have been made available. But budget reductions are starting to take a toll. Cuts in the Defense Department five-year plan since January [1985] total almost $300 billion. The Air Force share is about $75 billion. Reductions like this can’t be made without cutting into the muscle — we’ve had to terminate forty programs and have had to stretch and delay many others.”

Zero-Three-Three” is a current Washington buzz term that has become accepted legerdemain for what is politically possible in defense budgeting: no growth in the FY ’86 defense budget and three percent growth in each of the next two fiscal years. At best, we enter F Y’86 with a “zero growth” expectation. More likely, however, the Air Force’s budget will encounter “negative growth” before the year is out because of optimistic repricing assumptions and a congressional decision to regard unspent funds from previous years as new money.

Any defense official who justified his force or personnel recommendations only by saying something like “I’m achieving zero growth” should be — and possible would be — relieved on the spot as irresponsible. But our Congress, with the constitutional power and duty to raise and support our nation’s armed forces and to provide what is required for our common defense and general welfare, seems to be on the threshold of doing something just as absurd.

Given our leadership role in the free world, the United States does not have the luxury of static force requirements. As a result, we cannot buy our national security capability as a fixed-price package. Our military requirements are developed through a series of judgments in line with changes in the threat and in our national objectives. The ultimate purpose is to determine what best serves our common defense interests and what will keep us from becoming inferior to any potential enemy. It is not a perfect system, of course, but it is one designed to maintain a relevance to these threats by thoughtful selections and sizings. This important relevance and balance cannot be maintained with fiscal slogans and experimental accounting theories. We will never be able to find a responsible, definitive, and unchanging answer to the question “How much is enough?” simply because we do not control the extent or character of the threat — nor can we do so by some sort of fiscal flat.

Congressman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote an “open letter” (Washington Post, October27) to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger saying that the budget deficit reduction plan being advanced by Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) was “the dumbest piece of legislation that I have seen in fifteen years on Capitol Hill” and that, if it became law, the Secretary was “going to preside over the largest peacetime cutback in history.” Congressman Philip Crane (R-Ill.) countered in and “open letter” riposte (Washington Post, November 26), pointing out Congressman Aspin’s inconsistency in criticizing the massive defense reductions inherent in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings formula while, in the same breath, supporting a House Democratic deficit-reduction plan that mandates far greater cuts in future defense budgets than those in the Senate plan he had condemned.

In both letters, and in the general mindset evident on Capitol Hill, it is apparent that all of the popular deficit-reduction plans would give short shrift to the logic and substance behind our future defense requirements. It seems that congressional actions will curtail current defense budgets through arbitrary, across-the-board percentage reductions as well as by specifically targeted cuts, culminating in “zero growth” — or less.

Unfortunately, in none of these deficit-reduction plans does it appear that budget levels, authorizations, or appropriations for future defense requirements will result from serious consideration of the imperative to keep our technology and our force levels relevant to the threats we will face.