07 January 2011

The New Defense Budget Considered

The big decisions in the 2012 Defense budget announced by Secretary Gates yesterday were a mixed bag.


No one has discused, because the decisions are largely uncontroversial outside the military, about $19 billion a year that the U.S. military will secure by streamlining its bureacracy, administrative operations, senior management bloat, and base structure. These are all good.

Secretary Gates has also laudibly shut down some troubled major weapons programs and recognized that the Defense budget does need cuts that extend beyond fraud, waste and abuse, while also recognizing that the military cannot simply entirely cease to replace and upgrade parts of its massive arsenal of military equipment, vehicles and weapons systems.

But, what Secretary Gates has failed to do is show any vision of how the U.S. military needs to be transformed relative to the status quo. Fraud, waste and abuse is not the only or even the principal reason that the Defense budget is so immense. It is an ongoing issue and must be ever pruned in a ceaseless task.

The bigger problem, however, is a systemic refusal of anyone associated with the budget process or the Department of Defense to do any meaningful balancing of strategic benefit relative to budgetary cost. It may be politically ugly, both within this massive bureacratic ediface and in the eyes of the larger public. But, the only way to trim the Defense budget down to an appropriate level is to do a better job of answer the question of whether the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, or subparts of those services need to be expanded or need to be cut. There are simultaneous shortfalls and bloats. And, the prevailing tendency, evident in Secretary Gates' budget speech when one compares the numbers between services, is that the bureacratic principal that each of the armed services should receive equal amounts of pain and gain matters more than getting to an appropriate mix for forces given who our likely military opponents are and what kind of resources we have now.

We have too few Army soldiers in many specialties, but too many in the areas of air defense and artillery and heavy tank operations. The Army is also grossly inadequate in its foreign language and civil affairs capabilities; it may not like nation building or counterinsurgency, but that is one of the primary missions that their boss the President has called upon them to serve, because we have no one else who is better at it in our system of government, time and time again.

The number of Marines may be close to right, but its overly technologically ambitious weapons programs have cost too much and don't work. But, it is too concerned with D-Day style amphibious assaults that are of tertiary relevance to modern warfare. World War II will not repeat itself. If the Marines are to remain relevant, they need to develop a new vision for themselves as all purpose elite expeditionary rapid reaction force, rather than one whose primary purpose is to storm the beaches.

The Navy's Blue Sea surface combatant forces are grossly excessive, but its capacity to deal with coastal submarines, and swarms of missile boats, sophisticated anti-ship missiles, and to deal with asymmetric opponents like pirates in a cost effective way, is deficient. Overall, the Navy is too large. The Air Force has excessive and little used air to air combat resources, large numbers of aircraft used for bombing that are overkill or have designs counterproductive for the purposes for which they are used, and underinvests in transport and support aircraft and close air support resources to back up the Army. Overall the Air Force is too large relative to the other services.

Is the military transforming itself to meet our nation's needs?

How does Secretary Gates' proposal measure up to the real needs of the military to transform itself? Not as well.

The number of active duty Army soldiers is reduced when it should be increased.

The overall size of the active duty Air Force and Navy should be reduced, but is not.

The programs he has killed or postponed largely deserve their fate, but his proposal to develop a next generation long range bomber is premature, his failure to cut the F-35A/F-35C buy is unfortunate, has failure to reduce the surface combatant fleet wastes money that is in short supply, and he make no real effort to identify and develop new capabilities that the U.S. military needs now or in the immediate future because they are gaps in its force structure.

We have encountered a number of those gaps in the past decade. The military need MRAPs (mine resistant armored personnel carriers, IIRC), it needed armored humvees and wider availability of body armor, it needed gun trucks to guard convoys, it needed short take off and landing aircraft to carry cargos smaller than those of a C-130, it needed air based communications hubs, it needed great sniper rifleman capabilities, it needed more people who were fluent in a variety of languages including Arabic, and so on and so forth.

Obviously, no one can fully predict what capabilities we will need in the next war. But, we should be doing a better job of pro-actively identifying gaps in our military capabilities and filling them, particularly when the cost of doing so is modest or actually cost saving because it deals with a problem more efficiently, and we need to do a better job of learning from experience what we need to stop spending money on because we don't need any more of it.

Better tailoring our military to the demands it is facing and will continue to face in the 21st century would allow us to be both more militarily capable and to reduce the Defense budget at the same time.

The Marines

The Marines were the big loser. Their active duty force strength is to be cut by about 10%, their bigger ground vehicle procurement program called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV for short) has been cancelled, and their next generation fighter aircraft, the F-35B has been put on a "two year probation" and reduced in priority to be after the Air Force F-35A and Navy Aircraft Carrier F-35C version.

The EFV decision comes with good justification. They've spend $3 billion dollars over more than twenty years trying to invent it and it still doesn't work and would be extremely expensive even if it did work. According to Secretary Gates:

Today, I am also announcing my agreement with the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy and the Commandant of the Marine Corps to cancel the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. This program is of great interest to the Marine community so I would like to explain the reasons behind what I know will be a controversial decision.

The EFV’s aggressive requirements list has resulted in an 80,000 pound armored vehicle that skims the surface of the ocean for long distances at high speeds before transitioning to combat operations on land. Meeting these demands has over the years led to significant technology problems, development delays, and cost increases. The EFV, originally conceived during the Reagan Administration, has already consumed more than $3 billion to develop and will cost another $12 billion to build – all for a fleet with the capacity to put 4,000 troops ashore. If fully executed, the EFV – which costs far more to operate and maintain than its predecessor – would essentially swallow the entire Marine vehicle budget and most of its total procurement budget for the foreseeable future.

To be sure, the EFV would, if pursued to completion without regard to time or cost, be an enormously capable vehicle. However, recent analysis by the Navy and Marine Corps suggests that the most plausible scenarios requiring power projection from the sea could be handled through a mix of existing air and sea systems employed in new ways along with new vehicles – scenarios that do not require the exquisite features of the EFV. As with several other high end programs cancelled in recent years, the mounting cost of acquiring this specialized capability must be judged against other priorities and needs.

The F-35B, a short takeoff, vertical landing fighter aircraft designed to replace the Harrier jump jet in several world military forces on small aircraft carriers and the F-18 in the Marines, like the MV-22 Osprey and EFV before it, suffers from essentially the same problem. Current technology stuggled to meet the program's requirements without making unacceptable tradeoffs and costing a huge amount of money to develop. A short takeoff and landing aircraft isn't that technologically demanding as long as you have some fudge room in your definition of "short" and don't expect too much else of the aircraft. But, its takes far more technilogical effort to get a fixed wing aircraft to hover, and the vertical lift capability in the F-35B has required compromises in range and payload capabilities for the fighter.

The MV-22 Osprey, a vertical takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft that uses a tilt wing to achieve this end, did make it into production, but has been a disappointment. It is faster and more fuel efficient than a helicopter, but smaller than a merely short takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft with a comparable payload that has a similar speed and somewhat better fuel efficiency. The small capacity of the MV-22 prevents it from carrying even a Humvee or more than half a platoon of Marines - it can't carry any more than the larger Marine helicopters. And, the MV-22 is much more expensive that a comparable payload helicopter or a comparable payload short takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft. As a result, the niche where the MV-22 makes military and economic sense compared to the alternatives is quite small.

But, this is still painful medicine for the Marines who designed their latest LPD-17 San Antonio class Amphibious Transport dock ships (basically big Marine amphibious assault force transport ships) on the assumption that it would integrate with the F-35B and EFV. It also has designed its recent and planned Amphibious Assault Ship (i.e. mini-Harrier and Helicopter Carrier) purchases around these systems. The usefulness of those purchases, past and future, has also been called into question somewhat by these decisions.

There is a consolation prize for the Marines in the speech, however. They get upgrades to their existing amphibious vehicle fleet and a promise of a new procurement program to build less ambitious version of the EFV to replace this fleet.

This decision does not call into question the Marine’s amphibious assault mission. We will budget the funds necessary to develop a more affordable and sustainable amphibious tractor to provide the Marines a ship-to-shore capability into the future. The budget will also propose funds to upgrade the existing amphibious vehicle fleet with new engines, electronics, and armaments to ensure that the Marines will be able to conduct ship-to-shore missions until the next generation of systems is brought on line.

The decisions to back off from the technologically troubled F-35B and EFV programs are both good ones. They were concepts that would be great, if possible, but aren't worth prioritizing when we aren't sure that we can make them work. The fact that the British backed out of the F-35B program and that the Italians have cut their F-35B order also reduced the importance of this program.

The Air Force

The Air Force wanted, but didn't get more F-22 fighters. It did get more military drone aircraft, a next generation space vehicle launch system, an increase in the priority given to its F-35A basic next generation fighter aircraft program, and as a consolation prize for not getting more F-22 fighters, upgrades to the radars of its existing F-15 fighter aircraft.

But, the Air Force also got a major new prize: a new long range bomber development program. According to Secretary Gates:

[A] major area of investment for the Air Force will be a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber. This aircraft – which will have the option of being piloted remotely – will be designed and developed using proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity. It is important that we begin this project now to ensure that a new bomber can be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service. The follow on bomber represents a key component of a joint portfolio of conventional deep-strike capabilities – an area that should be a high priority for future defense investment given the anti-access challenges our military faces.

The investment in an expensive new long range bomber that basically replaces the capabilities of the existing B-2 bomber is a boon that was not clear would be included in the budget. An unmanned capability isn't that big of a deal in this case. A B-2 bomber has a crew of two and can blow up half a dozen major cities in a single run if armed with nuclear weapons. The stealth capability and its long range is designed to prevent this kind of aircraft from ever having to engage another aircraft in air to air combat.

It is also interesting that the Air Force is justifying the urgency of this purchase with on the grounds that the B-2 fleet is aging, despite the fact that it has still made heavy use of the much older B-52 fleet in Afghanistan for missions where the stealth capability of the B-2 is not needed. Bombers age much more gracefully than other military aircraft because their training regime is less intense than that of fighters, and they aren't needed on a day to day basis for non-combat operations the way that transport aircraft are used for that purpose. There have been calls for the Air Force to develop a technologically unambitious "transport-bomber" to replace the B-52 based on existing off the shelf transport aircraft designs. But, this didn't happen.

The Air Force also surprisingly didn't have to reduce its active duty force strength, despite the fact that it is far less strained operationally than either the Army or the Marines who do face those reductions, and despite the fact that smart bombs and improved sensor technology have greatly reduced the number of sorties it takes the Air Force to accomplish the same missions that it would have required decades ago when the Air Force's active duty strength was set at roughly current levels. There have been some cuts, but they have been modest.

My intuition is that the Secretary of Defense's reasoning is that it is easier to train ground troops and resort to Reserve and National Guard forces on short notice to provide ground troops than it is to train new pilots and aircraft mechanics. But, this still seems to me to be a case of a lost opportunity to reduce the military budget without losing U.S. Air Superiority compared to plausible opponents.

Less surprising, but disappointing none the less, is a lack of any major new Air Force investment in transport aircraft or close air support aircraft which it controls but uses to support the Army. The Air Force has also not been force to back off at all from plans to replace existing F-15s and F-16s that have not already been replaced by the F-22 on a more or less one to one basis with the F-35A, despite the fact that smart bomb technology, the increased capability of the F-35A in air to air combat relative to the F-16 including stealth, and the reduction of the scale of the Russian military should make the Air Force capable of doing more with a somewhat smaller fighter fleet. The Air Force has also ignored the possibility of using lower cost, lower capability aircraft for the mission of domestic anti-terrorist air security around major cities, a mission that is now carried out with expensive, overkill F-16s and is scheduled to be carried out by expensive, overkill F-35As when they replace the F-16, despite the fact that features like stealth in the F-35A are actually counterproductive in this mission.

The Navy

The Navy, like the Air Force, unreasonably in my opinion, was spared reductions in active duty force strength, despite the fact that the Navy is the least taxed in operational pace relative to its capabilities of the four military services. Its current "hot" military role is to fight pirates with speedboats in Somolia. Apparently, Secretary Gates felt that preparing for potential threats from North Korea, China, Iran, and Russia probably in roughly that order, justifies the current scale of the U.S. Navy which is the pre-eminent naval force in the world by a large margin.

The Navy isn't rushing to buy new F-35Cs as fast as possible. It is instead hedging its bets with upgrades of existing F-18s and newly purchased F-18s, as well as an investment in a high tech, unmanned carrier based combat drone aircraft. If the combat drone aircraft is as promising as it seems likely to be, I wouldn't be surprised to see the F-35C program abandoned entirely or greatly reduced in purchase size. Buying more F-18s, when the Navy is already running its carriers with far less than full compliments of fighter aircraft because existing threats don't justify the additional expense casts doubt in my mind on the question of whether the additional F-18 purchases are really needed.

The new ship purchases over the next five years, of a DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer (a class prematurely terminated with a smaller than originally planned number of ships bought because it is so extremely expensive), the Littoral Combat Ship (in two designs rather than one), and a new non-combatant Ocean Surveillance Vessel, which was contacted for in 2009, are all old news.

Reading between the lines, the Navy does appear to have lost some ground. Two versions of a next generation cruiser warship, one to replace existing aircraft carrier escorts in the cruiser and destroyer class, and the other to fill a stand alone missile defense mission, were not mentioned, nor were efforts in the design stages to build a new aircraft carrier design. There was also no mention made of efforts to design a next generation attack submarine, to purchase more of the current state of the art Virginia class attack submarine, or to design a next generation ballistic missile submarine (estimated to cost $7 billion each or more) to replace the aging Ohio class of ballistic missile submarines.

Secretary Gates also did not acknowledge serious ongoing technological problems with bringing the Littoral Combat Ship and its modules into service, criticisms of the capabilities of the Littoral Combat Ship (which are particularly meritorious with regard to the fleet's inability to adequately defend itself from swarms of the missile boats found in many world navies and for which the U.S. military has no real good answer), or the fact that the cancellation of the next generation Non-Line of Sight weapons system in the Army also impacts the Littoral Combat Ship program which had planned to use it in one of its modules.

The Navy remains to slow to reduce its massive investment in Blue Sea surface combatant warfare resources that will probably rust away before they are ever used in a military conflict. Russia continues to scale back its Navy and has become much less of a naval threat to the United States than it was during the Cold War. China has a growing and increasingly sophisticated Navy and regularly rattles its saber, but its large fleet of quite, coastal diesel-elecric submarines and its latest anti-ship missiles make it increasingly unclear that surface combatants will be effective in countering its naval strengths, and China seems less prone to rash military action that it did a couple of decades ago when post-Cold War structure of the Navy was determined.

Iran and North Korea are both more likely to engage in rash military action than China or Russia, and have the two most threatening navies, other than those of China and Russia that would plausibly be opponents of the U.S. navy in an international war. The North Korean threat comes almost entirely from its old and ill trained but still functioning and large submarine fleet and from its nuclear missile capabilities. The Iranian threat comes from a mix of land based anti-ship missiles, a large Persian Gulf fleet of missile boats that could swarm U.S. allied military or merchant ships, a small fleet of coastal submarines and the possiblity the the Persian Gulf could be filled with sea based mines. All of these countries, and many more, have fairly potent fighter aircraft complements as well.

No one in the world can pose a serious threat to the U.S. attack submarine fleet, but the eleven aircraft carriers that the U.S. has in its fleet, accompanied by cruisers, destroyers, frigates and attack submarines that are mostly tasked with serving as escorts as part of carrier groups, is not an ideal force with which to contend with coastal submarines and large numbers of land docked missile boats that can come out of nowhere, and is vulernable to advance missile strikes against them. These carrier groups are hardly defenseless. But, the kinds of strikes that they are vulnerable to can come with almost no warning, and in military exercise after military exercise, when submarines fight warships, the submarines win or at least draw disproportionate blood. Mostly, the Navy has avoided catastrophe because none of the serious military players in the world has wanted to risk picking a fight that would mean all out war with the United States.

Put another way, the U.S. Navy is extremely well equipped to fight Blue Sea naval battles of the kind seen in World War II that are extremely unlikely to ever happen, but ill suited to fight the submarined hunting and asymmetric warfare scenarios in coastal areas that are far more likely to arise. Yet, while the Navy is devoting some new resources to filling gaps in its capabilities, it is doing nothing to pare back old naval resources that are likely to be obsolete by the time that we need them.

The Army

A cut of 27,000 soldiers from the active duty Army is less deep than the cut to the Marines, about 5% compared to 10% for the Marines. But, the Army is the central player in Iraq, until we withdraw, in Afghanistan, and in just about any plausible future war the U.S. might be drawn into as a part of its larger effort to neutralize terrorist bases of power abroad and asist its allies in dealing with insurgencies.

The Army's soldiers have seen an unreasonably high pace of deployment for the last seven years, and the ability of the Army to draw upon Army Reserve and National Guard forces to supplement its capabilities has been close to exhausted. A reduced Marine Corps also limits the Army's ability to supplement its ground forces with Marines. At any give time, almost a third of the Army's soldiers are in, en route to, and immediately departing from (sometimes via medical evacuation) warzones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army's large presence in South Korea is looking increasingly less risk free as well as military tensions between North Korea and South Korea mount.

The base of operations has been so great that an unprecedented share of Army veterans are returning home with injuries (traumatic brain injury from proximity to IED explosions, and PTSD, are the stereotypical injuries of these wars) and suicide rates in the Army have soared. It is all good and well that Secretary Gates wants to invest more resources in suicide prevention for Army soldiers, but the source of the problem is trying to do too much with too few troops.

Unlike the Navy, whose new Littoral Combat Ships operate with about a third of the crew of comparable sized ships that have come before it, and unlike the Air Force, whose smart bombs and improved tactical intelligence tools have made it much more efficient at the job of destroying targets, most soldiers on the ground in battlefields are only marginally more empowered to do their jobs than they were a generation ago. They have weapons that are only modestly improved in counterinsurgency situations since Vietnam (with the exception of their artillery, which is much more accurate, and their greatly increased use of night vision technology).

Secretary Gate is not wrong in observing that: "Even after the projected reductions in the Active Army beginning in 2015, the service’s permanent end strength would continue to be larger, by nearly 40,000 soldiers, than it was when I became defense secretary four years ago." But, there is nothing sacred about the force level that was in place four years ago. Experience has shown us that the number of soldiers in our Army is far less adequate relative to the military's needs for these resources than any other part of the United States military, which is prolifgate relative to its military needs in other respects.

The Department of Defense should be expanding the size of the active duty Army at the expense of high tech but less urgently needed weapons systems in the Air Force and Navy, instead of reducing it. Even if it is possible to call upon Reserve and National Guard forces, or to borrow resources from the Marines, the Army should have the regular active duty strength to adequately address wars in landlocked or nearly landlocked countries that the U.S. will be devoting substantial resources to fight wars in over the next few year.

The cancellation of an anti-aircraft weapons system, and a next generation missile based artillery system, that, as usual, were over budget and have had performance problems, aren't big worries in the short run. Anti-aircraft weapons systems aren't a priority when none of the Army's current opponents have any aircraft, and the Air Force has ample resources to deal with future opponents that do. The NLOS missile system, however wonderful it might have been if it worked, didn't work and was costing more and more to develop. And, the Army's existing Excaliber guided howitzer shells, MLRS rockets, helicopter based Hellfire missiles, and increased ability to call in precision Air Force bombing, while expensive in all of these forms, are already dramatically better than anything the Army had forty years ago.

Upgrades to Army surveillance resources and its armored vehicles are presumably welcomed by the Army, although the number and mix of vehicles involved aren't clear. Secretary Gates announced that the Army will "modernize its battle fleet of Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Stryker wheeled vehicles."

Part of this decision makes sense. The Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Stryker wheeled vehicles have received heavy use in Kosovo, Iran and Afghanistan, so this will benefit the Army's ongoing operations, although the upgrades may mean that replacement of these vehicles with next generation systems is going to be postponed. But, the utility of an upgrade to much of the U.S. force of Abrams tanks has been cast in doubt. The war in Iraq is winding down. The A-10 aircraft and Bradley Fighting Vehicles proving just as effective as the Abrams tank in anti-tank warfare. Abrams tanks proved inpracticable for troops in Kosovo. The first few Abrams tanks belong to U.S. forces in the nine year old Afghan war arrived only late in 2010 and already on their way to being of secondary importance. Abrams tanks played a secondary role, although it did have some use in small number in the later phases of the Iraq War. Abrams tanks are hard to deploy because they are so heavy, and hard to use in the tight terrains of mountain passes, old world city streets, and jungles. The Russians have retired a large share of their tanks, and the U.S. has a large share of its Abrams tanks in the boneyard as well.

The U.S. probably could benefit from having some upgraded Abrams tanks. But, the number it needs is probably in the dozens, rather than the hundreds or the thousands.

1 comment:

Maju said...

It is still not a defense budget, but an attack budget, an imperial and imperialist budget for an imperial and imperialist military.

You mention Iraq "until we withdraw". Officially you withdrew in 2010 or 2009, the remaining 50,000 troops or so are just (in theory at least) standing there in their bases, like they are in Germany, for no apparent reason and with almost no practical utility. The only reason is imperialism: effective annexation of those countries: it is a garrison in a protectorate.

A defense budget should be oriented to the defense of the territory of the USA, it'd be largely based on militias, like the National Guard (but wait: the NG was sabotaged by drafting all volunteers to Iraq, what caused many people not to want to join anymore). An aeronaval defense is pretty logical too, considering that (after we ignore mostly harmless Canada), most US borders are with the Ocean. Besides you have a huge nuclear deterrence arsenal.

You could have an excellent defense for a small fraction of what the Imperial Army costs. But you would have to renounce to be an empire.

So what exactly are you defending? Genocidal Israel? Theocratic Saudi Arabia? Rotten Hamid Karzai? Warmonger South Korea? The cocaine business in Colombia? The opium trade in Afghanistan?

I think these are good questions. In any case the military black hole is the main cause of budgetary deficit, together with the undue subsidies to the big corporations.