The Department of Defense has created a “fog of war” for Congress with its budget request.
“Fog of war” is a phrase coined by Carl von Clausewitz to describe the inherent uncertainty that prevails during warfare, forcing individuals to make decisions amid imperfect knowledge.
Pentagon brass should work on clearing that fog on the battlefield and beyond, not creating it for their Congressional overseers. However, by delivering its budget request late and incomplete, the department has created a thick fog, indeed.
The president submitted his budget request to Congress on March 28, 49 days after the legal due date. This delay leaves Congress, an institution not designed for speed, with less time to deliberate and decide on next year’s budget before the start of the fiscal year.
The administration offered several reasons for the delay: The Pentagon needed time to understand the final appropriations for FY 2022 or, alternatively, to factor Russo-Ukrainian War costs into the budget. Yet, when the budget was released, it was missing the final appropriations from 2022, and budget officials were careful to note that the budget had not been changed because of the war in Ukraine.
So much for the excuses for tardiness.
And it doesn’t stop there. Also late are the National Security and Defense Strategies, which should be the metrics used to measure and judge the budget. More than 14 months after President Biden’s inauguration, all we have is a pithy two-page fact sheet about the defense strategy and a 13-month-old “interim guidance” long on preaching about climate change, but short on any notion of how to secure the nation.
Adding to the fog was the absence of substantive supporting reports and documentation at the time the budget was first released, such as the budget overview book, the justification books and financial data from the previous fiscal year.
Two weeks on, the Pentagon finally started publishing some of this information, yet it has more of a trickle than the usual flood. Now, almost a month after the initial release, more data is available.
While the budget was accompanied by a press release and a press briefing, the usual budget overview was MIA and was only made available almost a month after the initial budget release. It contains a more detailed narrative than what is presented in press materials, including cost breakdowns by service and by appropriations account. It is considerably more robust than the short summary slides that are provided to the press.
The delayed justification books contain a mass of data that ranges in detail from the contracts that comprise a program to entire categories of appropriations. The building blocks of justification books are forms that describe the past, present and projected state of each of the programs that the Department of Defense is executing. This is where you can find detailed information needed to assess how well a program is progressing. Without this data, congressional overseers are pretty much flying blind.
To make sense of the proposed FY 2023 request, one needs to know what happened in the preceding year. Unfortunately, information on the enacted FY 2022 budget was mostly missing when the budget was first released. The FY 2022 budget was signed two weeks before the release of the FY 2023 request, which should be enough for the department to input data into its systems. If the data input is taking longer than that, Congress and the department should investigate reforming its current financial management tools.
When releasing the budget request, senior administration officials stated that it had been finalized before Russia started its war against Ukraine and they made no effort to change anything to account for it. The administration has already announced more than a $1 billion dollar commitment to aid Ukraine, which undoubtedly impacts the budget. A rational budget must take those expenditures into account.
These factors combine to make it even more challenging for Congress to understand the defense budget request, let alone assess it against the needs of the country and measure it against the administration’s strategy. Call it the fog of the defense budget.
It will take additional time for Congress to navigate through the haze created by the Pentagon. That, in turn, will likely delay the writing and approval of the authorization and appropriations bills.
By submitting incomplete information and delaying the release of many important documents, the Biden administration has abdicated its responsibility to show Congress and the American public how it would defend and promote America’s interests abroad. Lawmakers still lack the information needed to make critical judgments pertaining to the defense budget. The administration’s delay creates even more time pressure on Congress for it to understand our Armed Forces’ requirements.
• Frederico Bartels is the senior policy analyst for defense budgeting at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.