Defense Cuts Cannot Be Arbitrary

Defense Cuts Cannot Be Arbitrary

By Jed Babbin - November 30, 2010

The $700 billion Pentagon budget is going to be cut one way or another in the coming round of austerity measures. But choosing the ways it is cut cannot be arbitrary.

The draft recommendations of co-chairmen of the Simpson-Bowles presidential debt commission said that $100 billion could be cut from the Pentagon's budget. They would reduce weapon system procurement by 15%, reduce overseas bases by one-third, eliminate the V-22 Osprey program, cancel the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, halve the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in favor of F-16s and F/A-18Es, and cancel the Marine Corps F-35 program, the Navy's Future Maritime Prepositioning Force, the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the Ground Combat Vehicle, and the Joint Tactical Radio. In addition Simpson-Bowles would cut $6 billion out of the "Tricare" health care system which covers retired service members and some members of their families.

The Barney Frank-Ron Paul "Sustainable Defense Task Force" proposed cutting $195 billion over the next decade. They would accomplish it by reducing the Navy's fleet to 230 ships, canceling the F-35 and the V-22 and reducing troops in Europe and Asia by 50,000. They would also delay the Air Force's KC-X tanker program, retire two Air Force fighter wings, cancel the Trident II missile program and reduce spending on research and development.

Neither Simpson-Bowles nor Frank-Paul base the cuts they propose on any analysis of what the Pentagon needs in order to do the jobs they're tasked to perform. They are, in short, divorced from reality.

The defense budget is not sacrosanct: it can be cut and realigned to literally get the most bang for the buck. By those cuts and realignments of spending the savings may be - if the analysis is accomplished properly - even bigger than those two proposals estimate. But the cuts can't be just an arbitrary list of things people don't like. They have to be based on the missions our armed forces are responsible to perform.

Our armed services are expected to deter aggression, fight and win America's wars, deliver disaster relief around the world and - in the neocon version of the war against terrorism - build democracies with one arm while fighting terrorists with the other. You can't just say we need only 230 ships in the Navy or do everything we need to do with only half the planned F-35s unless you first figure out what the ships, aircraft, people, satellites, cyberwar assets - and more - will have to do.

Back in the days of the Reagan administration, there was a process called "defense guidance," which was elegant in its simplicity. First, on the basis of the best intelligence available, defense experts would estimate the intentions and capabilities of adversaries and potential adversaries to measure the threats that the Pentagon had to answer. Second, they'd compare what was in our "toolbox" - aircraft, ships, people, satellites, and the rest - to what had to be done and come up with a definition of the gap between what we needed and what we had. Third, they'd craft a budget plan that would retire what wasn't needed and develop and buy what new assets were needed.

In later years, "defense guidance" became the politically cumbersome "Quadrennial Defense Review" which is supposed to do the same thing. Earlier this year Defense Secretary Gates made massive cuts in procurement of new weapon systems before the QDR gave any analytical basis for the decisions. Gates's round of cuts made a poor start for the congressional exercise the Pentagon now has to face: cutting the defense budget in time of war and national economic weakness.

Before any other cuts are decided, a "defense guidance" sort of review needs to be done. From the top down, as a matter of national policy, we need to understand at a detailed level just what the Pentagon is going to be expected to do for the next five to ten years. Without the analytical basis provided by such a review, budget cutters are working in the dark.

For example, the Air Force has said for almost a decade that we need to replace the aged KC-135 tankers. Tankers are big, gray airborne gas stations. The average age of the KC-135 fleet is over 46 years. Many of the aircraft are too old and stressed to fly combat missions.

One of the reasons the United States is a superpower because we can deploy military force anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. In order to do that, you have to have the tankers flying, in position around the world, to refuel cargo and combat aircraft on their long flights to anywhere. No tankers, no superpower. How long can we rely on the tanker fleet when the Air Force says tanker replacement is its single most urgent problem?

And how many F-35s do we really need? The Air Force, Marines and the Navy all report huge shortfalls in the number of fighter aircraft they say they need. Gates limited the production of F-22s, the air superiority fighter planned to replace the F-15, to 187 aircraft. What missions will the services be unable to perform if the F-35s or the V-22s are cut?

And - looking through the other end of the telescope - there are probably systems on the procurement schedule that shouldn't be bought. When Gates limited the Navy's DDG-1000 stealthy destroyer to three ships, the Navy planned to buy a "Flight 3" of DDG-51s, really an entirely redesigned ship. But the "Flight 3" ships will cost more, take far longer to build, and will be far less capable than more DDG-1000s would. Why not save money by cancelling "Flight 3" and building a few more DDG-1000s instead?

Simpson-Bowles and Frank-Paul are examples of how defense planning shouldn't be done. The Pentagon budget can and should be cut. But before we cut anything we'd better first determine what our warriors need to fight and win.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

Copyright 2010, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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