Pentagon Planning Document Eyes Navy, Air Force Programs for Cuts

Friday, January 29, 2010 at 3:00 pm
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen (Oscar Matatquin/ZUMA Press)

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen (Oscar Matatquin/ZUMA Press)

President Obama announced in his State of the Union address that national security programs would not be subject to his proposed spending freeze. But that hasn’t stopped Pentagon officials from placing what they consider to be outdated military programs in the budgetary icebox.

In its master planning document for the medium-term defense outlook, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon will announce cuts to some Navy and Air Force programs. The Pentagon will not purchase any more of the costly C-17 transport aircraft for the Air Force. It will delay purchase of the Navy’s LCC command ship. It will cancel production of the Navy’s planned CG(X) cruiser. And it will contend that these steps and others are necessary for reorienting the U.S.’s defense posture around the wars the U.S. is fighting now and the threats it presently faces.

[Security1] According to a knowledgeable Defense official who requested anonymity, the cuts in the QDR will not be as extensive as the ones announced in last year’s Pentagon budget. Last spring, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ended several persistent, expensive and underutilized or unproven defense systems like the F-22 fighter jet and the Army’s Future Combat Systems vehicle, steps lauded by defense reformers and the subject of a tough but successful congressional fight. Those cuts “created the space for the QDR to focus on areas of reinvestment,” the Defense official told TWI.

The QDR is scheduled to be unveiled on Monday. Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday about both the QDR and the fiscal 2011 defense budget, the first budget guided by the new document. An early draft of the QDR that leaked to Defense News and InsideDefense on Wednesday did not identify the three systems as slated for cuts, and the Pentagon official said the final document will change substantially from the version that leaked.

Delaying production of the LCC and canceling the CG(X) would probably not “equal a big cost savings,” said Laicie Olson, a defense analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, since it is unclear how much replacing those systems with different ones would cost. But ending the C-17, manufactured by Boeing, would be a “huge cost saving,” she said, representing an estimated $2.5 billion — that is, if the administration can persuade Congress to stop authorizing the purchase of a plane that provides about 30,000 jobs in more than 40 states.

In any event, the budget request the Obama administration will send to Congress next week is expected to total $740 billion when factoring in the cost of sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, up from $663 billion last year. But when not factoring in the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon budget is expected to grow by 2 percent over last year, or about the rate of inflation.

Both the QDR and the anticipated cuts reflect the document’s reorientation of Pentagon thinking, planning and budgetary decisions toward immediate and manifested threats over the next four years — principally the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, which the leaked draft anticipates continuing throughout the four-year life of the QDR — and away from remote or hypothetical ones. The 2010 document abandons a construct of its predecessors that instructs the military to prepare to fight two simultaneous conventional wars, the result of painful experience fighting two simultaneous unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that earlier QDRs did not envision.

Rather than instruct the military to prepare for particular conflicts against particular enemies, the 2010 QDR will instruct it instead to defend against demonstrated enemy capabilities and to support specific missions. Those missions include supporting civilian authorities, improving cyberspace capabilities and performing counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and stability operations — the first time a QDR has embraced these once-marginal functions as core Pentagon capabilities. It instructs the military to deter, counter and defeat weapons of mass destruction and “anti-access capabilities” possessed by adversaries, like missiles and cyber defenses that inhibit the U.S.’s ability to project its military power. And the document urges the military to increase its supply and use of remotely piloted vehicles like the drones used by the Air Force in Afghanistan.

“This QDR focuses on the wars we are actually fighting, not the wars we sometimes wished we were fighting,” the official said, adding that a “hypothetical calculus” like the abandoned two-wars concept that did not focus on specific capabilities had “done far more harm than good.”

In particular, the QDR instructs the military to counter “ballistic missiles, anti-satellite capabilities and other systems” that adversaries can use to deter the U.S., the Pentagon official previewed. While it does not call out particular enemies and focuses instead on the capabilities they might possess, “we argue that the proliferation of some of these things to non-state actors will also magnify the problem — think Hezbollah using anti-ship missiles in 2006” during its war with Israel, the official said.

The QDR also emphasizes that military forces require “seamless integration” with a “range of civilian and military partners,” both from within the civilian sectors of the U.S. government and across the international community. But Raymond Pritchett, one of the leading naval bloggers, said that delaying the LCC command ship, a platform that allows several militaries to network together aboard essentially a floating headquarters, appeared at odds with the broader approach. “The command ship is a big deal,” Pritchett said. “If your stated strategic direction is partnership with other countries, the last thing you want to do is get rid of a platform that brings all those capabilities together.” He worried that delaying the LCC indicated that “the Navy is disconnected from strategy.” But some contend that the Navy’s advanced communications infrastructure means the LCC is no longer required for the Navy to operate alongside partner militaries.

By contrast, Pritchett saw the cancellation of the CG(X) as an inevitability that will cause the Navy to redesign its cruisers and destroyers into a single ship class. “From the perspective of defense reform, it’s a good thing, standardized to one hull,” he said.

Whether Congress will accept the cuts is an open question. The C-17 transport plane has limited utility in a war like Afghanistan, since the plane is too big for most of the country’s available landing space, but the plane has a lot of legislative allies. “They’ve tried to cut the C-17 before, and it hasn’t worked. They can’t get the cut through Congress,” Olson said. “As far as delays, that’s usually easier to get through. But those 30,000 jobs are going to be a kicker.”

Similarly, the Pentagon is preparing for a struggle with the Hill and the press about the anticipated cuts — and the focus of the QDR itself. Emphasizing the need to counter threatening capabilities rather than specific enemies opens the administration up to the political argument that it is neglecting particular U.S. adversaries. Monday and Tuesday will be filled with extensive press briefings, think-tank lectures and congressional testimony from Gates, Mullen and Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, whose subordinates conducted the QDR process.

“We’ll take some hits for not having a bumper-sticker force planning construct, but screw it,” the Pentagon official said. “The world is complicated.”

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