Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America has always been a society that strived for equality. Although commendable progress has been made during the interim, most Americans would probably agree that more work remains to be done when it comes to most kinds of equality.
But one exception to this rule is the military where equality has long remained supreme. That’s not to say that each individual within the military is treated equally—in fact, the military is built on the principle of a strict hierarchy—but rather that the different services within the armed forces have long been treated with near perfect equality.
That’s at least one implication of the Golden Ratio principle of defense budgeting, whereby the three different services—the Army, Navy (including Marines), and Air Force—receive a constant and nearly equal share of the defense budget. As Travis Sharp, one of the most outspoken critics of the Golden Ratio, explains: “Since fiscal year 1948, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have on average received 28 percent, 31 percent, and 33 percent, respectively, of DOD’s annual budget. Hot war, cold war, or no war – the allotment of the services’ budgets has remained relatively constant over time.”
From the very beginning, the Golden Ratio was driven by bureaucratic politics not national strategy. That being said, during the Cold War, it was somewhat defensible on strategic grounds. Whereas America’s geographical and economic positions demand a large Navy and Air Force, the threat of the oversized Red Army invading Western Europe through the Fulda Gap compelled Washington to maintain a large standing Army.
This logic disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. However, for the next decade America’s preponderance of power—particularly military power—shielded it from having to make the kind of hard choices every other nation must contend with. Then, the 9/11 terrorist attacks thrust the U.S. into the kind of large ground wars that necessitated maintaining a large Army.
However, with the post-9/11 wars winding down, a potential future peer competitor emerging, and austerity taking hold, the U.S. no longer needs nor can it afford to continue obliging the military equality of the Golden Ratio.
For one thing, the shift to the Indo-Pacific, as well as the declining utility of large ground forces, eliminates the strategic rationale of holding the three armed services in equal esteem, at least when it comes to the allocation of resources.
The Indo-Pacific is at its core a maritime theater. And while it’s true that many of the world’s largest armies are located in the region, it is not the threat they pose that America must guard against. In fact, local opposition to large, permanent U.S. bases in much of the region precludes the U.S. Army from taking an equal position amongst the Navy, Marines, and Air Force in the region. This is consistent with much of the world where large standing armies can no longer control local populations as much as they once could, at least using methods that are acceptable to the population of a democracy like the United States.
The second reason the Golden Ratio cannot stand is the exploding personnel costs of the U.S. military. As the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely tied to the Democratic Party, noted in a 2012 report:
“Military personnel costs have nearly doubled since fiscal year 2001 and now consume one-third of the Pentagon’s base budget—about $180 billion per year. If these costs are allowed to continue rising at their current rate, they will eat through the entire defense budget by FY 2039 unless the overall budget is increased to accommodate them.”
The United States can and must honor the commitments it has made to the young men and women who have served the nation so ably in its armed forces. The only way it can do this is to take reasonable measures to hold down personnel costs in the future. At some point this will require actually reforming the personnel system. However, a down payment can be made by significantly reducing the size of the active armed forces, and offsetting this partly by increasing the size of the reserve forces.
There is a strategic logic to this as well. Whereas the military can surge troops in times of crisis thanks to America’s robust population size, it cannot surge R&D or weapons systems that take generations to design, manufacture and test.
To be sure, reducing the size of the active standing military will reduce its overall combat effectiveness. This is a real cost. However, the military cannot meet realistic scenarios of defense spending over the coming decades simply by trimming fat from its admittedly meaty figure. It will have to make deliberate choices that will inevitable reduce its effectiveness.
The question is therefore what compromises will be the least detrimental to its effectiveness. When even celebrated, retired three-star Army Generals believe the Navy and Air Force must receive priority, cutting the size of the standing Army is probably where the least damage would be done.
Regardless of where one comes down on the question, it is undeniable that making these hard choices will require, first and foremost, that the Golden Ratio must be abandoned. In a time of defense austerity and rising peer competitors the U.S. can no longer afford to allow bureaucratic politics to trump military necessity.
Fortunately, there is bipartisan support for ending the primacy of the bureaucracy in military budgeting. Specifically, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), both members of the House Armed Services Committee, recently penned a joint op-ed over at Breaking Defense calling for the end of fair-share budgeting.
As the two Congressmen argue:
“Real strategic choices should not be built on fair budget percentages but on hard calculations about the types of capabilities the Combatant Commanders need to meet the missions we ask them to execute.”
One can only hope their colleagues will heed the call.