The new defense budget does not support the Pentagon’s strategy

Yesterday was Budget Day at the Pentagon, with numerous briefers unleashing barrages of numbers and slides at defense reporters. Over the previous month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials had already revealed the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance and a broad overview of the upcoming budget, events I covered here and here.

With yesterday’s release of the budget’s details, we can now assess whether the Pentagon’s spending plans support its strategy. The Pentagon’s strategic guidance emphasized the Obama administration’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific theater and promised a shift in military resources from ground combat power to the naval and air power the Asia-Pacific theater will need. As promised, the new Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) slashes the Army and Marine Corps. But the critical modernization promised to the Navy and Air Force is largely missing from the new spending plan. The new budget does not support the Pentagon’s strategy.

The Navy’s new shipbuilding plan is troublesome. The new FYDP cuts or delays 16 ships from the Navy’s five-year shipbuilding plan. Rear Admiral Joseph Mulloy, the Navy budget briefer, explained that most of these were low-priority support ships and that the few combat ships in the total were merely delayed.

But the previous shipbuilding plan was inadequate, which makes the new one even more so. In FY 2013, the Navy will buy a grand total of five real warships – two submarines, two destroyers, plus a down payment on an aircraft carrier (the four Littoral Combat Ships bought in FY13 hardly qualify as combatants). A submarine, a destroyer, and an amphibious ship were delayed outside the FYDP. No new amphibious ships were funded in FY13. Mulloy had to sheepishly admit that the amphib fleet would top out at 30 ships, below the Navy’s goal of 33 and way below the 38 amphib ships the Marine Corps says it needs.

For the whole Navy, Mulloy confessed that the fleet will remain at 285 ships through FY 2017. He held out the possibility that the Navy might get above 300 ships sometime next decade, but such a guess is outside the window of current budgets. And the administration has no plan to get the Navy to the 346 ship the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel recommended. The new defense strategy was supposed to result in more naval power available for the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Such a result in not  in the budget.

The new budget is equally disappointing regarding the development of long-range air power for both the Air Force and the Navy. Mulloy confessed that the Navy’s unmanned carrier-based recon-and-strike drone, vital to keeping the Navy’s aircraft carriers in the game versus the threat of long range missiles, will be delayed by a further two years. The Navy will string out the buy of new P-8 surveillance aircraft and plans to buy only three Global Hawk maritime surveillance drones in FY13. The Navy has planned to make up for reduced ship numbers with greater overhead maritime surveillance capacity. But the foot-dragging on Navy surveillance aircraft in the FY13 budget calls into question the Navy’s commit to this concept.

The Air Force continues to display a similar lack of urgency regarding its long range strike program. Given the vast distances in the Asia-Pacific theater, the Air Force’s new bomber is its most important contribution to warfighting capability in that region. That is hardly reflected in Air Force priorities, which allots just $0.3 billion to the program in FY13 and only $6.3 billion over the next five fiscal years. At that rate, the new bomber won’t be in service until the mid-2020s. And until that day arrives, the U.S. will continue to have a grand total of 10-15 B-2 bombers available to operate at long range against high-end enemy air defense systems.

As promised, the Pentagon’s budget cuts eight Army brigade combat teams and five Marine Corps infantry battalions. The strategic guidance promised a transition to high-end naval and air power, to respond to adversary anti-access/area denial threats and to reinforce the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific region.

Unfortunately, the new budget does not deliver on that promise. The shortfalls in naval and air modernization are likely to leave partners in the region wondering whether the United States is serious about its new strategy. Meanwhile, adversaries will be encouraged to keep expanding their military forces, with more confidence than ever that those investments will pay off.

 

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Comments

I don't think the nation can afford the luxury of scaling its defense budget to the Pentagon's strategy. For better or worse, strategy has to be scaled to fit the budget.