Alumni Spotlight: Eric J. Labs

Eric Labs

Degree: PhD in Political Science, 1994
Dissertation: Fighting for More:  The Sources of Expanding War Aims
Current Position: Senior Analyst for Naval Forces and Weapons, U.S. Congressional Budget Office
Recent Publications:
Options for the Navy's Future Fleet (May 2006)
Paying for Iraq's Reconstruction (December 8, 2006)

On January 19, 2007, SSP interviewed Alumnus Eric Labs about his work at the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and his preparation at MIT. Here's what he said:

Question: Much of your recent work at CBO has been about the Navy's future force structure. What do you see as the main challenges facing the Navy during the coming decade?

Dr. Labs: The Navy faces two related challenges.  One is of course fiscal. The Navy has a plan to build up the current fleet from around 280 ships to at least 313 ships.  That will require spending a lot more on shipbuilding than the Navy has been spending, and finding that money will be difficult.  There are many and increasing demands on the federal budget as a whole and on the Defense Department's budget in particular. Right now, the Navy does not have a strong case for additional resources, certainly compared to the Army or Marine Corps. 

The second challenge is that the Navy has to peer into the future and worry what will be the right mix of ships 20 to 30 years from now.  Because warships last from 30 to 50 years, most of what the Navy will need a decade from now are already in the fleet.  But what the Navy buys over the next 10 years and beyond are what it will use 20 to 30 years from now.  In 2030, what are the threats the Navy must be prepared to fight?  Islamic terrorists, a Chinese superpower, a resurgent Russia, or somebody else entirely?  What makes this particularly hard is that today's focus is on Islamic terrorists and Iraq and thus the Navy often must justify its shipbuilding budgets in that context, but maybe in 2030 the threat is China. The stuff you buy to defeat Al Qaida is not what I would buy to compete against the PLAN [China's People's Liberation Army Navy].  I have real sympathy for the Navy on this issue.

Question: The Navy's budget has gone up significantly in recent years, but some experts predict an end to growing defense budgets after the Iraq war ends. If the Navy's budget is not allowed to grow, what could the service do to live within its means?

Dr. Labs: I share the view that the current cycle of rising defense budgets is sunsetting.  The Navy will try several things to squeeze more shipbuilding out of its current budget.  It will try to cut back on research and development, at least for a while.  This is practical.  The Navy's R&D budget is at a historic high right now---many new weapons are nearing the end of development, so the service will now start buying them.  But it won't be able to keep that up for 30 years---the time span of its shipbuilding plan.  The Navy will also try to reduce personnel, which as you know are very expensive, and try to keep the rein on operations and maintenance spending.  Those may prove more difficult than the Navy seems to believe.  The fleet will age for substantial periods over the next 30 years (there's a chart on this in my recent study), and an aging fleet will likely cost more to operate.  Reducing people will help, but that will take time and I think it is not clear whether reduced manning on Navy ships will lead to an actual reduction in the number of people serving, or whether more people will be needed in the shore-based infrastructure to take up the tasks that in the past would have been done at sea by large ship crews.

In the end, the Navy will face a budgetary iron triangle: it can either spend more money on ships and aircraft, buy cheaper ships and aircraft, or buy fewer ships and aircraft.  If more money is not forthcoming, history suggests the Navy's fleet will fall, possibly as low as 200 to 250 ships.

Question: The new Democratic majority in Congress says it will be more aggressive in overseeing federal programs than the last Congress. How will that affect you and other analysts in the Congressional Budget Office?

Dr. Labs: CBO is nonpartisan agency, so changes in the political control of Congress do not have a major effect, such as whether we have to hunt for new jobs.  But when the executive and legislative branches of government are held by different parties, the nonpartisan legislative support agencies, such as CBO, the Congressional Research Service, and the Government Accountability Office, all find ourselves with more work to do and more interest in the analysis we provide.  I have always been fortunate in that most of my Navy-related work has been through bipartisan requests.  I do not expect that to change.  Others may find they have more work to do and their work is used more---and that is not a bad thing at all.

Question: You wrote your dissertation about the reasons why countries expand their war aims. That seems a far cry from the work about Navy budgets, force structure, and weapon systems that you are doing at CBO today. How did your studies and research in SSP prepare you for your work at CBO?

Dr. Labs: It is indeed a far cry from I would have expected I would be doing 15 years ago.  Nevertheless, my MIT-SSP training has held up pretty well.  Fortunately SSP (or the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program as it was known then) required quantitative analysis, and the Department of Political Science required statistics.  Having that background has proved very valuable.  Anyone interested in doing defense analysis must be prepared quantitatively.  If I could do it all over again, I would have taken more math.  And certainly taking Barry Posen's General Purpose Forces course was useful.

Even more important, however, is the education that comes from writing a dissertation, even if it is not related to the subject matter of your eventual career.  Barry has a very colorful phrase he uses, which really isn't printable in a family publication such as this, but in essence he (and Steve Van Evera, and Steve Miller)  expected me (as my dissertation committee) to pick a problem, study it hard, take it apart from top to bottom, and put it back together again---and then write it all up.  That is what I do in almost every one of my CBO reports---and the CBO publication review process is not unlike a dissertation defense.  The quality of the education I received from MIT was outstanding.

Question: You have been at CBO for more than a decade. What keeps you there? Are there any drawbacks to working for Congress? Would you recommend a career on Capitol Hill to other SSP alumni or current students?

Dr. Labs: Well, there are careers on Capitol Hill and there are careers on Capitol Hill.  CBO is a quasi-academic organization in some ways:  I am paid to think about large, long-term problems and write reports about them.  I then have to brief those reports to many Congressional staffers and sometimes the Members themselves.  Occasionally, I have even testified before a Congressional committee.  As someone who originally wanted to be a professor, this is great work.  Add to that, CBO is nonpartisan, family friendly, and you are surrounded by consummate professionals.  Those are the reasons I have stayed, but staying has had its own benefits.  The longer I stay, the better I get at my job, and the more I can contribute to the legislative process of oversight of the Navy.  I find that very rewarding, rather than jumping to something new every few years, which some friends of mine prefer.  I can see the benefits in that, but I like the path I have chosen better.  It does not mean, necessarily, that I will be at CBO until I retire, but it could. My counterpart at the Congressional Research Service has been at it for 22 years and is very good at what he does.

Working directly for Senators or Representatives is something entirely different, as is working as a Professional Staff member for a Congressional committee.  Those are much more political jobs, which have their own advantages or disadvantages.  I would certainly recommend a career in any of these to SSP students, but they would want to investigate carefully those types of jobs before jumping into one.  Staff jobs can be very demanding on one's schedule, for example.  You will want to know what you are getting yourself into.