“If you go back and look at the year 1985,” he explained, “you’ll find that the defense budget, in terms of real purchasing power, was about the same as it is today.”
“But that year,” he said, “we had over 2.6 million men and women in uniform. Today, we have just over 1.2 million.”
“That year, we bought 900 combat aircraft. This year, we might not quite buy 120.”
“That year we bought over 1,200 tanks and 1,800 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. This year, about 185 Strykers.”
“In other words,” he explained, “We can’t cut aircraft procurement. We’ve done that. We can’t cut armor procurement. We’ve done that. We can’t even cut personnel expenses. We’ve done that. We are going to have to change the way we do business, and the only way to do that is to create a more trusting and robust partnership between the private sector and the military.”
Defense Cuts Alone Can’t Fix the Budget
Speaking at the Fairfax County (Virginia) Chamber of Commerce Salute to the Military luncheon, Hamre, himself a former DOD Comptroller and Deputy Secretary of Defense, expressed doubt that DOD spending cuts could ever resolve the current budget crisis in America.
“If Democrats take entitlements off the table and Republicans take taxes off the table, then the only thing left is discretionary spending,” Hamre said, “And the Defense Department is half of it. But you can’t take 25 percent of the problem and make it carry 100 percent of the solution.”
But, he said, inevitably DOD will be asked to shoulder much of the burden of balancing the budget, and the private sector will have to help. “We can’t just invite in the private sector and say ‘OK, let’s have the private sector guy do what the public sector guy used to do. We have to let industry redesign our business processes.”
Economic Development and the “Arab Spring”
Confronted with a rapidly changing global landscape, Hamre said, the United States may also need to look beyond its military to protect its interests. He pointed to the changes wrought by ongoing protests and revolution in the Arab world.
“I don’t think there has been a more significant historical moment since the Berlin wall came down,” Hamre said. “I think it would be a mistake for us to think that this is going to unfold just the way we want it to. I think there are going to be some very awkward moments ahead.” The movement underway now, he said, was not necessarily one toward democracy, but instead toward populism.
But, he added, “I’m very optimistic. The narrative we are seeing – it’s not a narrative we get to write, it’s one they’re writing for themselves – but it’s very much a matter of ‘let’s build our communities,’ rather than a rejectionist narrative, and that’s a reason to be optimistic.”
America’s role in the “Arab Spring,” he said, should be focused not on politics, but on economic development. “We should work to show them how we can support them economically, and how we can find agreements that are good for us and good for them. Our agenda ought to be one of supporting the private sector. Economic development is key to what they want, and it’s what we can best offer.”
Exercising Soft Power
To contribute, he argued, America may need to dial back its public rhetoric. “We should stop giving speeches about how inspiring we are. There is a lot in us that is inspirational, but they don’t want to be lectured to.”
Instead, he said, the U.S. should exercise soft power through its universities. Hamre told of his time touring Eastern Europe during the last years of communism. “There were probably three or four reasons that we won the Cold War,” he said, “but I think one of the major reasons is that virtually every leader in every one of those countries toward the end of the Cold War had gone to graduate school in the United States. This was the great secret weapon of the U.S. in the Cold War. They might not necessarily have liked us, but they had internalized how our society operates, and in the end that made all the difference.”
“I would honestly boost scholarships for foreign students before I built the next aircraft carrier,” he said. “I think in the long run, that’s going to buy us more security.”
“And sure,” he concluded, “you might argue ‘well, some of those who come over will be terrorists.’ But aren’t they easier to keep track of here, anyway? I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why we have let this angry paranoia keep us from our own self-interest.”
Sean Tucker covers the federal government and the contracting industry for GovWin.com, the network that helps government contractors win new business every day. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.