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How should DoD predict the future?


Lawmakers, DoD witnesses and a panel of experts had a highly unusual debate Wednesday on the advantages, drawbacks, difficulty and utility of the Pentagon's long-term plans for shipbuilding and aviation. On one side were lawmakers and top military officers who said that DoD might as well not try to submit yearly plans that project the services' plans for buying equipment over the next three decades -- the data are seldom good, the plans can't predict unexpected events or conflicts, and the whole thing changes every year anyway, they said.

That's the point, said planning supporters: Congress and the services learn a lot every year from the plans' changes, and forcing the services to reveal new sets of assumptions and projections lets Congress make the best decisions about when and how to support some of the biggest-ticket items the federal government buys.

The session, convened by the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, was unusual because it focused not on a specific program or problem -- the F-35, say -- but on process. Secretary Gates and other top DoD officials have grumbled about the amount of homework they owe Congress, and the Pentagon witnesses on Wednesday echoed that: One of DoD's top cost estimators, Vice Adm. Stephen Stanley, mused that it might be better and easier if the 30-year plans came out less frequently, only surveyed the coming 20 years, and were tied closer to major reports such as the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Analysts strongly disagreed: Shipbuilding experts Ron O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service and  Eric Labs of the Congressional Budget Office said that would enable the Pentagon to hide more information. Labs told lawmakers he has met with service officials who've told him he shouldn't rely on numbers in their previous reports or projections, but then declined to give him the current figures they're using for analysis internally. Less frequent plans would only compound that problem, he said. O'Rourke and Labs both said that besides the services' budget submissions each year, the 30-year plans are the most important reports they get in helping develop their analyses for Congress.

O'Rourke and defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation also pointed out something else: Even though the final decade of a 30-year projection includes a lot of estimations and guesswork because it's so far in the future, it enables a much clearer picture of potential long-term problems for the services. O'Rourke pointed out that the Navy's shipbuilding plan shows that it won't have enough cruisers, destroyers or submarines beyond the 2020s, but includes no extra ships or alternatives to meet the shortfall. Without the 30-year plan, O'Rourke said, a reader might get the impression it was just possible to stretch the lives of the existing ships in the fleet, when in fact that wouldn't do.

Eaglen pointed out that the Air Force's long term projections showed what she called "a bow wave" around the 2020s, when the service wants to begin buying large numbers of KC-46A tankers, F-35s and -- it hopes -- new bombers. With the long-term picture, it's possible to see that the Air Force will need more money or to alter its plans before it can pay for all those aircraft, Eaglen said.

Looking even further into the future, Eaglen pointed out that the Navy has said it's interested in a new "air defense dominance fighter," and that the Air Force also could need a new cargo aircraft. Yet neither service's long-term plan includes nearer-term provisions for the research and development spending it would need if it still wants to pursue those goals, she said. All of this helps Congress ask questions of the services and make decisions earlier rather than later.

The panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, disagreed with O'Rourke, Labs and other witnesses over the need for the 30-year plans. A yearly planning requirement just creates lots of "red tape," he said, and he said he worried it would ultimately create "osteoporosis," bureaucratic hardening around the yearly production of plans, and he even cited the "five-year plans" of the Soviet Union. Long-term plans create "an entitlement mentality" for the services and Congress, Cooper said, "an environment of promise" that reduces the Pentagon's "agility."

Cooper also suggested that the reliance on long-term planning implied DoD's service officials were incompetent, that they needed a roadmap because they couldn't otherwise be trusted to build the capability their troops needed.

O'Rourke defended the plans: "Of course, the burden of preparing a report should be weighed against its value," he said. "In my view, this is worth it."

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