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Aiming For a Leaner, Meaner Military

Politico - October 23, 2011, By Charles Hoskinson

Pentagon leaders are hoping a mandate to cut at least $350 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years won’t disrupt plans for a more agile, efficient and modern force that still can reach across the globe to deliver a crushing blow when needed.

That’s what they hope. The only thing for sure is that the military will be smaller when the budget-cutters get done.

Today’s military is both battle-hardened and worn out from 10 years of constant warfare. Pentagon planners must find ways to keep troops with hard-won combat experience from leaving as the frantic pace of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan winds down. At the same time, aging and worn-out equipment needs to be replaced using advancements in technology — all while saving up to $50 billion a year from current spending.

“Our challenge is taking a force that has been involved in a decade of war and ensuring that as we build the military for the future, we are able to defend this country for the next decade at a time of fiscal austerity. We need to build a force that can confront a growing array of threats in the 21st century,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee on Oct. 13. He warned that while the U.S. experienced a “peace dividend” when past wars concluded, threats are still growing today, and cutting too deep will create a “hollow force” unable to adequately protect national security.

The major question driving the decision making on cuts is: What does the nation want its military to do?

In an Oct. 11 policy address at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Panetta laid out his vision for the future — a nimble, tech-savvy military capable of swooping in to confront terrorists globally while maintaining a powerful force that can deter the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and counter a rising China in the western Pacific. While saying he did not want the military to shrink from its global reach, Panetta suggested to the House Armed Services panel that cuts might force pullbacks in some areas, most notably Africa and Latin America.

Observers are eagerly awaiting the results of a strategic review that will guide decisions on where to reduce Pentagon spending. In the meantime, just about everyone else in Washington is offering their own ideas, with many suggesting that the current U.S. defense strategy — and possibly also some highly sought-after new weapons — won’t survive the planned cuts.

Some common suggestions include a smaller Army, fewer aircraft carriers for the Navy, cuts to strategic nuclear arms, including Air Force bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a Marine Corps with fewer amphibious and aviation capabilities.

Also on many analysts’ chopping blocks are weapons systems, including the most expensive defense program in history — the Joint Strike Fighter. The ambitious plan to replace most Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps tactical aircraft with more than 2,400 F-35 fighters in three variants has an estimated $1 trillion cost over a planned 50-year lifespan — an eye-popping figure that attracts budget-cutters.

Appearing beside Panetta on Oct. 13, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey questioned whether the U.S. can afford building three different models of the fighter, saying pointedly that “three variants create some fiscal challenges for us.”

Underscoring the tough choices defense must make is the fact that over the past 10 years, the military has been spending more without getting more. That’s mostly because of rising personnel, operating and technology costs, though waste, fraud and inefficiency also play a role.

The biggest budget battle of all is likely to be over pay and benefits for members of each service, especially health care and retirement. These have been major drivers of increasing costs for the Pentagon over the past 10 years, but are also very sensitive political issues — health care costs alone have increased 85 percent in that period, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Panetta and Dempsey have made clear that, while changes to military pay and benefits are on the table, they will not affect current service members.

“We’ve made a promise to people who are on duty that we are going to provide a certain level of retirement,” Panetta told the House Armed Services panel. “Those people have been deployed time and time again. They’ve put their lives on the line on the battlefield. And we’re not going to pull the rug out from under them. We’re going to stand by the promise that was made to them.”

Here’s a breakdown of the budget picture for each service:

ARMY — Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said earlier this month that the number of Army troops in the service likely will shrink below the 520,000 limit set before the mandatory budget cuts, noting that this would put at risk the ability to fight two regional wars at the same time — a long-standing Pentagon policy goal.

The Army also is likely to have to put off or cancel modernization plans, including the purchase of a new ground combat vehicle. While defending the need for a strong ground force at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting on Oct. 12, Panetta noted that “it is unlikely that we will be refighting Desert Storm in the future.”

Army officials have indicated they’d rather have a smaller, better-equipped force than a larger one with outdated equipment or not enough training and maintenance funds. “Ultimately ,it’s about us projecting combat power in the future, so we want to retain as much of that as we can,” Odierno said.

NAVY — The Navy would be a key element of any strategy to counter China’s rising power. But the service is about 30 ships short of the goal of 313 set by Secretary Ray Mabus as the minimum necessary to meet current operational needs. In addition, a multimillion-dollar shortfall in maintenance funds has left one in five of existing vessels unfit for combat.

“The stress on the force is real, and it has been relentless,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the current chief of naval operations, said in July. Given those concerns, the Navy could be a big beneficiary of any shift in funds from another service: Panetta signaled earlier this month that the results of the Pentagon’s budget review would not honor the “golden ratio” of proportional spending.

The Navy also seeks to protect its carrier force from critics who say the giant nuclear-powered warships are obsolete and vulnerable to new weapons such as Chinese anti-ship missiles specifically designed to sink them. In a post on the Navy’s official blog, Rear Adm. Craig Faller, who commands the carrier strike group centered on the USS John C. Stennis, noted that his force “is a visible and powerful symbol of U.S. commitment and resolve” capable of operating far from U.S. shores untethered by the need to negotiate basing rights with other countries.

MARINE CORPS — Commandant Gen. James Amos earlier this year ordered Marine leaders to do their own strategic review and come up with a vision for the Corps as the nation’s “expeditionary force in readiness,” offering ammunition against suggestions that its amphibious mission is obsolete or that its forward-deployed forces can be cut.

“When the dust settles … there’s going to need to be a recognition that America’s Marines are going to need to be forward-deployed,” Amos told POLITICO in an interview, saying an amphibious capability is a crucial element to the success of that mission.

“If you’re going to try to impose your will on somebody at some day in the future, it’s going to be more than just parachuting in and then occupying a small piece of ground for three days when your supplies run out. You’ve got to sustain yourself, you’ve got to be able to project that power, and we bring that,” he said.

One of Amos’s top priorities is protecting the Marines’ two signature aircraft programs — the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport and the F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter, which is capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings. Both programs have had developmental problems that have made them prime budget-cutting targets. Amos — the first aviator to lead the Corps — has taken a direct interest in working through those issues.

“Think of all the enormous capabilities it would bring to be able to operate off an austere site,” Amos said of the F-35B. “It fits us.”

AIR FORCE — The main concern for Air Force officials is finding money to modernize the nation’s air fleet without shrinking it too far. The Air Force success with using unmanned drones to locate and hit terrorist targets without putting pilots in harm’s way is an indication of the service’s future direction, but officials are also faced with replacing aging equipment for more traditional engagements.

“We face a multiyear effort to recapitalize our aging tanker, fighter, bomber and missile forces; to continue modernizing critical satellite constellations; to meet dynamic requirements in the cyber domain; and replace other aging airframes, such as training, vertical lift, and presidential support aircraft,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said last month at the Air Force Association’s annual meeting.

“These recapitalization and modernization programs are essential to core Air Force capabilities. Their requirements are largely understood; we know when we need them; and in many cases, we have settled on an acquisition strategy. The question confronting us is financing.”

Donley drew a line against critics who say manned strategic bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are a legacy of the nation’s military past. “We must maintain the nuclear triad,” he emphasized.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the amount the Pentagon is expected to save a year. The correct figure is up to $50 billion.

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