Any physical scientist will tell you that adding pressure increases friction. It’s for the same reason that comparisons of the military departments’ budget shares seem to be popping up as fiscal caps tighten. No one wants to fall behind the others, but neither does anyone want the conspicuously stable division of resources to distract from their mutual position that this budget is strategy-driven.
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was on point when the issue came up in Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Responding to a question from Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) about the strategic priority placed on maritime power, Dempsey commented:
…the budget we submitted is a joint budget. It's not a -- it's not the individual service budgets kind of bundled together; we really worked this as a joint team. We were faced with the Budget Control Act, $487 billion. And so every service paid a bit of that -- paid a bit of that bill. I will tell you the Navy paid least of all, because we prioritized exactly the issue you're talking about.
There’s just one problem – the Navy didn’t pay least of all. That distinction goes to the Army. Its FY13 base request is a billion dollars above its FY12 base appropriation, while the Navy’s is a billion dollars below. Since the Air Force base request is down $5 billion, both the Army and the Navy are set to grow as shares of the base Pentagon budget, but the Army’s 0.6% increase exceeds the Navy’s 0.2%.
If the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) costs are counted, however, things do line up with Dempsey’s characterization. The Army’s share falls by 1.3% while the Navy’s increases by 1.2%. But OCO by definition isn’t part of the post-war strategy meant to drive this budget; it isn’t part of the savings plan that Dempsey was referencing; and, after more than a decade in which war costs have been separate, changing the message now would be dubious.
Not that one-point margins in one year could indicate strategic realignment anyway. Looking for the impact of strategy on the budget requires taking a long view. We won’t know the precise effect of the new strategic guidance for years – but we do know our past. Since FY72, from leaving Vietnam through the end of the Cold War and until even now, the military departments’ budget shares tend to deviate from their average, roughly equal shares by less than 1.5%.
Watching the Army share increase alongside a strategy prioritizing sea power is just a minor example of the inertia behind the military’s budget equality.
* In addition to the three military departments, Congress also appropriates resources to a “Defense-Wide” account, which includes activities like SOCOM, the Missile Defense Agency, and the Office of the Secretary. This analysis excludes defense-wide funding when calculating the departments’ shares.