The Bottom-Down Review

Dec. 1, 1993

In 1992, when he was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Les Aspin hammered the Pentagon relentlessly for “top-down planning.” He complained that defense cuts were being implemented by percentage adjustments to the program rather than by a careful examination of requirements from the bottom up. When Mr. Aspin became Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, he got a chance to do it his way. He launched a “Bottom-Up Review” that kept everybody hopping all summer.

Unfortunately, he began with two fateful flaws in the process. The major miscue was that on March 27–before the Bottom-Up Review started–the Aspin-Clinton team announced its defense budget totals for the next five years. The actual requirements and programs would await the Bottom-Up Review. As Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said, the March 27 figures were simply “grabbed out of the air.”

The second flaw was that the Administration’s numbers were low. They set up a five-year cut, taking defense $104 billion lower than the final projection of the Bush Administration (and $245.2 billion below the 1990 budget summit baseline).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was foremost among those who warned that such a funding level would fall short of supporting an adequate defense program. Thus, Mr. Aspin and the armed forces labored on their bottom-up requirements in the awareness that the Administration’s budget credibility was on the line. The force-structure findings began leaking to the public in midsummer. The strong indication was that the review team had cut corners, trying to cover an optimistic strategy with too thin a force. [See “Two at a Time,” September 1993, p. 4.]

Concern intensified with official publication of the force projections on September 1. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said the plan flunked “simple, third-grade arithmetic.” He said the projected forces would have trouble responding quickly to one major regional contingency, much less the two contingencies the Bottom-Up Review expected them to handle nearly simultaneously.

Still more of the story emerged October 15 when Mr. Aspin revealed the financial bad news. The massive force cuts produced by the Bottom-Up Review were $13 billion short of satisfying the budget proclaimed in March. The Pentagon did not stand firm on the requirements it had so painstakingly identified. Instead, Mr. Aspin sent the reviewers back to find more cuts.

Senator Nunn told Congress that Mr. Aspin was short by a lot more than $13 billion. Among other things, he said, the Bottom-Up Review forgot to reckon with $23 billion in military and civilian pay raises directed by law. Senator Nunn said the underfunded defense program is heading for a “train wreck” and that “our US military forces are not capable of carrying out the tasks assumed in the Bottom-Up Review with this kind of eroding defense budget.”

Mr. Aspin’s report on the Bottom-Up Review projected the military force structure for 1999 in considerable detail. The Air Force, for example, is allotted thirteen active fighter wings, seven reserve fighter wings, and “up to” 184 bombers. The report did not specify the number of airlifters–a curious lapse since airlift, more than anything else, constrains deployment to the kind of regional crises around which the Bottom-Up Review is built. Even more curious, cynics noted, were all the trial balloons for radical reduction in airlift procurement that floated around the Pentagon as a separate issue the same week the Bottom-Up Review was published.

In addition to the $13 billion cleanup review and whatever is happening with airlift, Mr. Aspin announced on October 29 yet another Bottom-Up Review, this one dealing with nuclear forces. He waved off questions about force numbers and budget consequences. “Numbers should derive from the policy,” he said. “You don’t start with the numbers. You start with the policy and then derive the numbers.”

That is a familiar-sounding philosophy and one we’ve heard before from Mr. Aspin. He would do well to listen to it more closely himself. Defense planning should begin with requirements and strategy. That should determine the program numbers–including the budget numbers–instead of it working the other way around.

Sad to say, the process has been running backward. The blind budget projection made last March is driving the defense program. A perception is spreading that, no matter what Mr. Aspin claims, military requirements do not matter much. Only the money matters. Pressures are building already for more and deeper defense cuts.

We should brace ourselves, probably, for a continuing series of these Bottom-Up Reviews. It would be more descriptive to call them “Bottom-Down” reviews. The objective, it seems, has less to do with a review of requirements than it does with redefining the bottom in a more budgetarily pleasing way.