The Pentagon Has to Learn a New Language: English

To communicate the effects of budget cuts, officials will now try to avoid both “Pentagon-speak” and hyperbole.

ARLINGTON, VA - FEBRUARY 24: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) depart after answering questions at a press conference at the Pentagon February 24, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia. Hagel and Dempsey spoke about the upcoming Defense Department budget requests during the press conference. A proposal released February 24, plans to shrink the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Feb. 27, 2014, midnight

If the Pentagon wants to solve its budget prob­lems, it’s go­ing to have to solve its com­mu­nic­a­tion prob­lem first.

For years, the De­fense De­part­ment has been try­ing to ex­plain to Con­gress why the se­quester’s mil­it­ary budget cuts are a threat to na­tion­al se­cur­ity. But thus far, it hasn’t gone well.

When they were fight­ing the 2013 cuts, Pentagon of­fi­cials op­ted for col­or­ful lan­guage, de­scrib­ing the up­com­ing cuts as “fisc­al cas­tra­tion” or “a dooms­day mech­an­ism.” But they would also il­lus­trate their points with a slew of Pentagon buzzwords. Of­fi­cials would in­sist, for in­stance, that the cuts would harm mil­it­ary “read­i­ness,” of­ten without ex­plain­ing ex­actly how they would de­grade the mil­it­ary’s abil­ity to fight.

None of that per­suaded Con­gress to spare the Pentagon from the se­quester, but this week marks the start of an­oth­er at­tempt. The Pentagon offered up a pared-down $496 bil­lion budget pro­pos­al for next year, some $45 bil­lion less than what it ori­gin­ally ex­pec­ted. It is fa­cing hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of ad­di­tion­al re­duc­tions in the com­ing years.

And as De­fense of­fi­cials fight for fund­ing — to the tune of $115 bil­lion above the caps Con­gress im­posed over five years — they re­main plagued by the com­mu­nic­a­tion fail­ures of their past, but they’re de­term­ined to find a more ef­fect­ive way for­ward.

Their first step: ac­know­ledging their past ap­proach failed.

“We aren’t com­mu­nic­at­ing. We were not able to com­mu­nic­ate the im­pact of se­quester last year,” act­ing Deputy De­fense Sec­ret­ary Christine Fox told an audi­ence Wed­nes­day at the con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute think tank. “Be­cause we talked about read­i­ness, and nobody knows what read­i­ness is…. We go in­to Pentagon-speak, I get it.”

Pentagon of­fi­cials are already tak­ing a new tack on their in­form­a­tion­al charm of­fens­ive: a little straight talk.

It’s not just that De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel pre­viewed his budget pro­pos­al a full week be­fore the gi­ant tome lands on law­makers’ desks on March 4. His depu­ties — Fox, his comp­troller Robert Hale, and chief weapons buy­er Frank Kend­all — are all over Wash­ing­ton at in­dustry con­fer­ences and think tanks ex­plain­ing ex­actly what was cut in the budget, and what was spared, and why.

The Pentagon’s budget, too, is fi­nally spelling out ex­actly what will suf­fer if Con­gress does not give them ex­tra money, after years of fail­ing to plan for the worst. For ex­ample, the Army, which will shrink by some 40,000 troops in next year’s re­quest, could lose an­oth­er 30,000 troops the fol­low­ing year if the mil­it­ary does not get more money. The Pentagon will have to re­tire an air­craft car­ri­er; the en­tire KC-10 tanker fleet will be cut.

After years of vague warn­ings, the Pentagon’s new­found trans­par­ency means mem­bers of Con­gress will fi­nally be able to feel the polit­ic­al im­pact on their dis­tricts from de­fense cuts of this mag­nitude.

Still, it is not go­ing to be easy to ex­plain to Con­gress that the tradeoffs in the mil­it­ary’s budget for next year are meant to pre­serve its core abil­ity to fight — even if it means do­ing away with key pro­grams law­makers want. Or how the Pentagon is plan­ning for the best, in case law­makers de­cide to dole out more money and avert the worst-case scen­ario in fu­ture years. “If we tried harder, we couldn’t have made this budget more com­plic­ated,” Fox said. “There are ac­tu­ally mul­tiple budgets em­bed­ded in this sub­mis­sion.”

So of­fi­cials, by their own ad­mis­sion, are ad­apt­ing in how they talk about the budget pres­sures.

Fox brought up an NPR in­ter­view she did re­cently as an ex­ample. “I talked about hav­ing your teen­ager driv­ing to Ohio in a snowstorm,” she said. A par­ent nat­ur­ally wants to make sure the teen­ager can drive, that the car works, and that there’s a spare tire if it breaks down, Fox ex­plained. She said she is open to test­ing out the de­part­ment’s mes­sage on fo­cus groups of non­mil­it­ary people.

The Pentagon’s next chal­lenge is to con­vince law­makers that every pet pri­or­ity they want to add in the “tightly craf­ted” budget pack­age means something else of­fi­cials be­lieve is crit­ic­al must be re­moved. Fox said Hagel asked her to put to­geth­er a “ti­ger team” armed with facts and strong ar­gu­ments to de­fend the budget re­quest.

“We’re go­ing to do everything in our power to ex­plain those tradeoffs, if they force us, as they have every year, to keep things we don’t want to keep,” Fox said. “There’s not slop here. We have to take it out some­where else.”

Kend­all, un­der­sec­ret­ary of De­fense for ac­quis­i­tion, tech­no­logy, and lo­gist­ics, is also be­com­ing aware of how us­ing loaded meta­phors and scary lan­guage is not ne­ces­sar­ily the best al­tern­at­ive to bland Pentagon-speak or ac­ronym soup. Kend­all said the de­part­ment “cried wolf” about the dev­ast­a­tion the se­quester cuts would wreak be­fore they took hold. “What we did in ‘13 was sort of the death of 1,000 cuts,” he said.

This year, se­quest­ra­tion just got real. The Pentagon in pre­vi­ous years was able to blunt the full im­pact of the se­quester by us­ing funds left over from pre­vi­ous years; delay­ing po­ten­tially bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of con­tracts; and tak­ing ad­vant­age of changes in the law that gave the de­part­ment more flex­ib­il­ity. There were few highly vis­ible con­sequences to the cuts they warned against.

Law­makers, with some new visu­al aids, are start­ing to read the tea leaves — and stak­ing out their pri­or­it­ies. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire is cam­paign­ing for the A-10 air­craft the Air Force wants to re­tire, for in­stance, and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al of Con­necti­c­ut is seek­ing Pentagon com­mit­ments on the Pave Hawk com­bat-res­cue heli­copters.

Now that the cuts are start­ing to hit close to law­makers’ homes, the Pentagon could fi­nally have a chance to undo them. 

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