May 25, 2012

Think Tank Calls Budget Cuts an Opportunity to Reform Military

Despite dire warnings about U.S. military funding cuts, one prominent Washington think tank says fewer dollars give the Pentagon a chance to make sweeping changes to sustain America's warring dominance.

The Defense Department is implementing a $450 billion reduction to planned spending over the next decade, and could be forced to take out close to $500 billion more over the same span if Congress fails to pass a $1.2 trillion debt-paring deal this year.

But the Center for a New American Security sees an opportunity, for the Pentagon and its industry and congressional allies, in an otherwise negative situation.

"In order to sustain U.S. military pre-eminence in an emerging strategic environment characterized by new threats and constrained resources, the Department of Defense will need to organize and operate America's armed forces in new ways," states a new CNAS report. "The reality of constrained defense budgets presents DOD with an opportunity to adopt reforms that will make the U.S. military more effective as well as less expensive."

"Such reforms will ensure that the U.S. military remains the world's pre-eminent fighting force at a sustainable cost to American taxpayers," states the think tank, which has close ties to the Obama administration. Several of its founding and top scholars have landed jobs in government since 2009.

The CNAS report, which received ample attention this week in Washington national security and budgeting circles, puts forth a list of recommendations that would significantly alter the four armed services.

But each is wrought with political hurdles.

CNAS's reform plan is built on several ideas, including: prioritizing air and naval forces as the Obama administration shifts focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific; bigger-picture analyses to inform hardware decisions; and putting more dollars into systems that are a "leap ahead of the planned next generation of existing systems."

The think tank proposes shrinking the Army to 480,000 active-duty soldiers, down from about 560,000 today. The ground service also should transfer parts of its armored forces to the Army Reserve.

The Army has powerful supporters on Capitol Hill, as well as hawkish GOP members in both chambers who want the Army to remains at its current size.

The other service that has done the bulk of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marine Corps, should be shrunk from around 201,000 Leathernecks to about 175,000, the report suggests. Marine Corps officials want to shrink their force after two ground wars, making this recommendation more likely to be implemented.

The Marines also should reduce their carrier-based aircraft fleets, C-130 transport planes, and buy fewer MV-22 tilt rotor aircraft than now planned to save money. The Marines and their Boeing and congressional allies, however, have kept the MV-22 program going amid years of technological problems, making changes unlikely now that deployed Ospreys are performing well in combat.

The think tank calls for the Navy to drop another aircraft carrier, which would put 10 in the U.S. Navy fleet. Hawkish lawmakers likely would move to mandate in law that the big-deck fleet remain at 11, especially as China is, according to the Pentagon, producing its own aircraft carriers.

One recommendation that possibly could find traction in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill is for the Navy to buy more F/A-18E/F aircraft from Boeing, and fewer F-35C fighters from Lockheed Martin. The sea service has been adding to its F/A-18 fleet in recent years to hedge against ongoing problems with the F-35 program, and getting its best prices ever. Lawmakers from both blue and red states are growing more and more impatient with F-35 cost spikes and schedule delays.

The Air Force's 2013 budget plan requested major reductions for the Air Force Reserve, drawing the ire of many lawmakers. But CNAS says the service "should continue to pursue the reductions to its Reserve component proposed in the ... budget request."

The air service also should, to save monies, slash its planned buy of its F-35 variant and instead buy more F-16s from Lockheed Martin. While lawmakers might question the cost, they likely would not stand in the way of a new drone aircraft that CNAS calls on the Air Force to pursue for intelligence gathering and strike missions.