This morning, the Heritage Foundation released a new study called “A Strong National Defense: The Armed Forces America Needs and What They Will Cost.” The authors of the report, Dr. Jim Carafano and McKenzie Eaglen, gave a brief introduction, and then took questions from a small group on defense related media (oh yeah, and me).

Motivated by requests from both sides of the aisle on Capital Hill, Heritage has tried to do a straightforward analysis of what we need to do to get past the budgeting conundrum in which we find ourselves with regard to defense. Everyone agrees we must fund defense, and that the world is actually more dangerous and uncertain than 15-20 years ago, but we are facing choices that will actually lower spending and readiness in the near term and forfeit modernization in the out years.

What the Hill asked for – and Heritage has delivered – is an excellent starting point for a serious “adult” discussion on the hard choices that must be made and some sacred cows that must be sacrificed if we are to make progress and properly defend the nation. The authors seem to have taken great pains to avoid any partisan slant to their discussion, which should help the report gain traction with more folks.

The concern is that SecDef Gates has walked away from his own Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and the result will be to either move us back to the bad old days of the “hollow forces” of the late 1970s or continue to waste money the country cannot afford in fiscally difficult times. They tried to do this in a way that would broaden the audience from the “inside the beltway” wonks of defense in general and defense budgeting in particular.

We have to get away from a closed door that might as well be conducted in Latin for all the general participation it engenders. To do this, Carafano and Eaglen provide a simple review of the threats/challenges we face, grouping them under chapters on Asia, Middle East, Europe, the Homeland and Global. From this base, they lay out a logical force summary of what is needed to tackle these challenges effectively, and how much this will cost in bottom-line, un-obfuscated terms that illuminate the debate in a way most studies on this subject do not.

They specifically noted that they would not tackle the Gordian knot of defense acquisition beyond noting (along with everyone else) that it requires reform. They did not duck the issue but simply believe others (the Congressional QDR Review Team and John Nagal at the Center for a New American Security) are already thoroughly addressing this aspect. They do point out that Acquisition & Procurement reform is only one leg of the stool. The others are Personnel (pay, healthcare, retirement, etc.) and Operations & Logistics (including modernization). ALL of these areas must be addressed and reformed.

If you want the report’s bottom line, we will need the budget we have today plus about $25 billion per year for the next five years if we are to get healthy. This cannot be accomplished by simply throwing the “extra” $25 billion at the problem (even if we had it). Rather, it will require a full panoply of the reforms mentioned about to squeeze the waste out of the system. It will take extraordinary courage, hard work and focus to do it. Do we have those in sufficient amounts to tackle this?

We will never know until we push aside the curtains that have for too long prevented a wide ranging discussion on the Hill, in the executive branch and in the public media. One hopes that Heritage’s report may be the spark to begin the badly needed national dialog.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More