Under any form of sequestration, the Defense Department will be unable to balance its books without downsizing the Navy’s carrier fleet and slashing the size of its civilian workforce, experts agree. Four teams of analysts from leading national-security think tanks came to that conclusion following a recent exercise to plan for between $260 billion and half-trillion dollars in defense spending over the next decade.
Analysts from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments joined forces with colleagues from the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security to study two distinct budgetary possibilities. The think-tank exercise tackled two options — $500 billion sequestration cuts mandated under the 2012 Budget Control Act and another scenario in which half that amount was cut.
The suggestions for balancing modernization with dwindling budgets ranged from cautious optimism to near-defeatism, though most agreed that even under sequestration a solution could be found either in spending reduction or the alteration of the national security strategy. All four teams based their hypothetical spending plans on the Obama administration’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which focuses on the Pacific while maintaining a presence in the Middle East and avoids protracted wars. Military leaders have repeatedly warned that sequestration-level cuts would sink that plan.
Taking the most pessimistic view, AEI’s Thomas Donnelly said the global U.S. defense posture is at risk even under current spending levels. “All I can offer you are roads to failure, roads to defeat,” he said. “The current program does not maintain a two-theater force.” Bob Work, former undersecretary of the Navy and now chief executive officer for CNAS, led his team to a more optimistic view. He called the next five years a “period of agile opportunity.” “We are willing to take near-term risk for long-term payoffs,” Work said.
The exercise was timed to coincide with a similar internal Defense Department analysis of its options should sequestration take place. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is set to release the Pentagon’s strategic choices and management review May 31. It will lay out options for defense spending under three possible funding scenarios.
The first option assumes $100 billion in cuts spread over the next decade. This option reflects the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request and assumes that sequestration will be corrected or canceled. A second scenario would reduce defense spending by $300 billion over 10 years — about half of what sequestration would cut from the Defense Department’s top line. This scenario also would require some alteration of the 2012 Budget Control Act that triggered sequestration.
Finally, the review will consider what impact $500 billion in cuts would have on national security over 10 years. The exercise assumed that the Budget Control Act would not be completely reversed and that some form of sequestration would occur. It also assumed that compensation reform bills currently being weighed by Congress would pass. Harrison said that was a “generous” assumption.
Though the four teams’ spending plans differed in some dramatic ways, they reached consensus on many major rebalancing efforts. “Given the range of strategies you’ve heard here, there are some things that everyone agrees on … regardless of which strategy you end up pursuing, these are things that are likely to happen,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at CSBA. “It’s pretty remarkable, [that] people across the aisle, across a broad political spectrum can agree on these things and yet Congress can’t.”
Each of the four participating teams found most of their savings by cutting personnel — including active duty, Guard and Reserve troops and civilian employees — regardless of the level of budget cuts. Civilian personnel cuts ranged from between 82,000 and 263,000.All four teams opted to spend at least $5 billion on a round of base realignment and closure, even though they were not allowed to recoup savings from the program within the hypothetical time limit of the game. Even under full sequester cuts, the experts agreed that investment in the divesting of infrastructure overcapacity was key to tackling looming austerity.
The Navy’s 11-carrier fleet was downsized in every proposed scenario, regardless of the depth of mandated budget reductions. The cuts were achieved by a combination of slowing procurement of the new Ford-class carriers and retirement of one or more active ships, for a total reduction of between two and four carriers. In all four proposals, the largest rebalancing of resources was in the air power category, which includes all aircraft capabilities rather than the Air Force alone.
Three of the four groups dramatically cut investment in non-stealthy unmanned aircraft — Predator and Reaper drones — that are designed to operate in a low-threat environment and geared toward counterterrorism. The same majority poured money into the development of stealthy drones designed to fly in contested airspace, including a platform that is capable of operating off aircraft carriers.Legacy fighter aircraft did not fare well in any of the scenarios proposed. All four teams suggested cutting heavily from existing A-10, F-15 and F-16 fleets. The Air Force and Navy have proposed similar cuts in the past, but have received pushback from lawmakers, Harrison pointed out.
There was consensus that funding should be directed away from the legacy B-1 bomber aircraft and funneled toward the development and procurement of a next-generation design. While it was agreed that the carrier fleet should be downsized, the experts agreed to increase or at least protect funding for the Virginia-class submarine program, the littoral combat ship and procurement of new destroyers. Procurement of the latter two ship classes were reduced or delayed in some circumstances.
In every case, ground forces experienced net cuts. The consensus was to reduce the Army’s number of armored brigade combat teams by at least six — half the total active number. Teams made significant investments in cyberspace and space capabilities under all budget scenarios. Under the less draconian budget cuts, they agreed to fund protected satellite communication systems and new GPS satellites.
All teams cut at least one of the three intercontinental ballistic missiles air wings — about 350 missiles — while maintaining the nuclear triad. Three of the four teams elected to cancel the existing ground-based missile defense system under both budget scenarios.Every team made investments in undersea sensors and unmanned underwater vehicles under half-sequester cuts. Unmanned ground vehicles, ground- and sea-based directed energy and the electromagnetic rail gun also garnered investments “even in the face of significant budget cuts,” Harrison said.