Ahead of a major ad hoc spending review out of the Pentagon next week, a blue-ribbon panel of five defense think tank analysts is advising lawmakers and defense officials to invest more in next-generation technologies like unmanned systems, cyber, space and updated versions of legacy weapon capabilities like the Long-Range Strike bomber at the expense of the civilian defense workforce, short-term readiness and even elements of the nuclear triad.
The politically diverse panel of analysts, from an Obama administration critic to a recently departed official, universally agreed May 29 that cuts in spending on the Defense Department’s non-uniformed workforce, ranging from 10-33%, were necessary to help pay for investments in future capabilities, as well as a bare minimum force structure able to win another major regional conflict such as against North Korea or Iran.
But beyond personnel cuts, other bill-payers would include military pay and benefits, particularly health care, and the panelists harmonized on the need for at least one new round of base realignment and closure (BRAC). Next week at least 25 analysts from 10 think tanks will issue a letter to Congress calling for more BRACs, according to one panelist.
But politically unpopular proposals like BRAC aside, the vision that the analysts laid out to a large public audience in the cathedral-like Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill is also likely to touch a nerve with lawmakers, officials and the public. The zeitgeist they represented is one more indication of a change in the nation’s capital from denying close to $1 trillion in cuts to projected defense spending over the next decade — now mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act — to learning how to live with them without hollowing out national security. And for a nation coming out of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and still used to being the lone world superpower, learning to live within its means will be difficult.
“Anything besides [keeping] a lid on the world is going to be tough,” says Thomas Donnelly of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said the Strategic Choices and Management Review, due to be reported up the executive branch by this week, will propose significant cost savings in nonmilitary departments while tackling health care costs through increased fees and co-pays and related BRACs of facilities and personnel (Aerospace DAILY, May 7). It will also seek to grow defense cyber forces and capabilities and boost space capabilities, including counter-space and “operating through,” or continuing warfighting, if space capabilities are lost.
The think tank analysts largely echoed those priorities as well, according to a summary of their conclusions provided by Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which organized the event. Overall, each of the analysts and their support teams found the most savings in personnel costs and short-term readiness, although if given money back they immediately satisfied readiness gaps. In aircraft, three-quarters of the proposals favored stealth UAVs over non-stealth, and every team cut legacy fighters like F-15s, F-16s and A-10s. Each team cut aircraft carriers and chose to retire cruisers early while buying fewer new destroyers. They slashed armored Brigade Combat Teams in the active Army, and each cut nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles to some degree while favoring future submarines and the bomber.
They made “significant” investments in cyber and space capabilities, Harrison summarized, but also were willing to draw down parts of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense antimissile system. They also backed more spending on new technologies like electric railguns and unmanned sea and ground systems.
“We must prepare now to move toward the mature guided-weapons and robotics regime” environment, says Robert Work of the progressive Center for a New American Security, and until recently an undersecretary of the Navy.