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How DoD Got the Budget Hike: Readiness Woes Sparked Action

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 3, 1999 – The DoD budget request for a $112 billion increase over the next six years is a lesson in how senior leaders listen to soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen -- and a lesson in compromise within a democracy.

When Defense Secretary William S. Cohen took office in January 1997, the balanced budget agreement between Congress and the executive branch capped DoD spending at certain levels. Under the agreement, a spending increase in one area had to met with equal cuts somewhere else. Cohen has said in interviews that he felt obligated to live within the spending caps.

The budget agreement has been successful. The U.S. government ended 1998 with a budget surplus and economic forecasters look for more of them in the years to come. President Clinton said the budget surplus should be used to fix Social Security and Medicare first.

At the same time, however, anecdotal evidence was accumulating that not all was right with the military. While the spearhead -- soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are forward deployed or the first to deploy in a crisis -- was sharp, it was often at the expense of ready follow-on forces.

Joint Staff officials were hearing more stories of planes cannibalized to keep other aircraft flying. They were hearing how soldiers and Marines were working longer hours to keep an older fleet of armored personnel carriers and tanks on the road. They were hearing how installation commanders were delaying needed maintenance and repair of buildings and equipment.

They were also seeing some of the problems as many service members voted with their feet. Departing mid-level officers and NCOs were saying the duty was important, but the pay, retirement and other benefits were not enough to keep them in uniform. The services were losing the skilled men and women needed to project American force in an uncertain post-Cold War world.

The continued good health of the U.S. economy complicated the situation. High-school graduates were going directly to civilian jobs, making recruiting tough. The Navy and Army, for example, missed their fiscal 1998 recruiting goals, and, in fiscal 1999, the Air Force bought its first TV advertising airtime.

At meetings in "the tank" -- the Joint Chiefs' Pentagon meeting room -- Joint Staff officers brought these anecdotal concerns forward. The heads of the unified commands also expressed concern over military readiness. The chiefs believed the United States could fulfill national security requirements, but rising problems heightened risks to U.S. interests. They decided the way to address the money issue was to present it as a case for sustaining a quality military force.

Readiness reports finally started backing up the anecdotal evidence: The readiness of follow-on forces was down, older equipment was breaking down more often, Navy ships were sailing undermanned, and the Air Force and Navy faced pilot shortages.

The chairman took the Joint Chiefs' concerns to Cohen. In July 1998, Cohen concluded that despite efforts to make the department more efficient, DoD simply needed more money. He would have to take the case directly to the president.

Cohen, who had always visited service members when traveling, went on a series of trips to personally assess military readiness and to hear service members' concerns and view firsthand some of the problems they faced. Trips to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and Fort Drum, N.Y., and the conversations he had there with airmen and soldiers convinced him he could not delay fixing these problems.

On Sept. 15, 1998, President Clinton and White House aides met with Cohen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the unified command chiefs at Fort McNair here. While the meeting was a regularly scheduled one for the military leaders, it gave them the unusual chance to put readiness concerns before the president, representatives of the National Security Council staff and the Office of Management and Budget.

It was a meeting to warn the president of a potential "nose dive" in military readiness, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters at the time. "It's a meeting about the readiness of U.S. forces today and their ability to do not only their assignments now, but the challenges they might face in the future," he said.

The president came away convinced there was a problem.

The Joint Chiefs and the services looked at "what it would take to make the military completely well," said a DoD official. They came up with $148 billion over six years starting with a $20 billion increase in fiscal 2000.

White House officials felt the $148 billion was too much. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre worked with military leaders to narrow the request to what the chiefs felt they "absolutely needed." Pay, changes to military retirement and pay table reform headed the DoD list. The increase came to $112 billion over six years with a $12 billion increase set for fiscal 2000.

"If you go back to the previous era of big pay raises -- in 1979, 1980 and 1981 -- you will see defense officials waited until [the military] was broke and then they went to fix it," said a Joint Staff official. "What we started to do was look and see how we can prevent that. The serious effort started nine months ago."

Just after Thanksgiving, Cohen met with National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and presented the Pentagon request. President Clinton accepted the budget increase and on Jan. 2 announced his decision during his weekly radio address.

"When we give our servicemen and women a mission, there is a principle we must keep in mind," Clinton said in his radio address. "We should never ask them to do what they are not equipped to do, and we should always equip them to do what we ask. The more we ask, the greater our responsibility to give our troops the support and training and equipment they need."

On Jan. 19, 1999, President Clinton delivered the State of the Union address to a packed audience in the U.S. Capitol and to an audience of millions throughout the United States and the world. "It is time to reverse the decline in defense spending that began in 1985," he said.

In 1985, Ronald Reagan was president and there were over 2 million active duty service members. During the next 14 years, as the military budget got smaller, active duty strength declined by over 700,000 military personnel. During those same years, American forces were increasingly deployed to confront post-Cold War security challenges. Prior to 1985, few Americans knew the name of even one military operation; now the familiar and growing litany of missions includes Just Cause in Panama; Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, and Desert Fox in Southwest Asia; Restore Hope in Somalia; Uphold Democracy in Haiti; and Joint Endeavor in Bosnia.

Today the U.S. military, as part of Operation Allied Force, fights to deter genocide in Kosovo. Keeping this military the best trained, ready and equipped is the bottom line and the fiscal 2000 budget proposal starts the process.

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Related Sites:
Cohen Meets, Listens to Drum Soldiers
Cohen: Nothing Beats Firsthand Look
Readiness Concerns Underscore Cohen Visit to Georgia

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