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Todd Harrison, Director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS, discusses how thinking in incremental choices can help the Pentagon save money

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley says services should prepare for flat budgets in coming years. The Center for Strategic and International Studies says thinking on the margins could help the Pentagon save money.

The idea is to think in incremental choices, because that’s what you’re faced with, said Todd Harrison, Director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS. “It’s not a matter of, do I completely eliminate a leg of the triad or not; more often it’s, okay, do I need 400 ICBMs, or would it better to have 401 or 399? You need to be looking at the risk and the benefits on the margins of all of these decisions, because really that’s what we’re able to control,” he said.

CSIS publishes a series every December called Bad Ideas in National Security, which presents articles critiquing bad ideas that keep coming up relating to defense. “Consider it an airing of grievances, if you will, in the spirit of Festivus,” said Harrison. He said failing to think on the margins of the defense budget was one of these bad ideas.

The hope is that the series will be a learning moment to help educate people on how to think about issues, even if they don’t agree that it’s a bad idea, explained Harrison. He said they have seen some impact of guiding the thinking of policymakers to help focus what they are trying to do.

Harrison provided examples of how people fall into the trap of not thinking on the margins. One is the sunk cost fallacy, where policymakers are hesitant to cancel a program if they’ve already invested a lot of money into it. Another is the idea of buying more items to decrease their unit cost – but that doesn’t mean the extra units are adding value that is commensurate with their cost, Harrison pointed out.

Harrison said CSIS works to bridge the divide between Congress and the DoD so they think about issues and make decisions in the most logical way. “A lot of times, disagreements between DoD and Congress, it boils down to, they’re using different data, and they’re using different analysis, and if they could just come together and agree on some of the baseline facts, they might be able to communicate better about what they value, what they view as risk and what they’re willing to spend,” Harrison said.

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