The proposed FY 2015 defense budget with its associated force structure and investment decisions unveiled by Secretary Hagel yesterday is a tale of two futures: the one the Obama Administration wishes for and the one it fears. The former reflects the administration’s fervent wish to avoid the kinds of foreign entanglements that for the past sixty plus years created a high demand for forward deployed forces and generated a succession of conflicts that were increasingly costly, at least in terms of treasure if not always lives. Having only recently extricated itself from the domestic and international political disaster created by the threat to strike Syria, during which the White House got a taste for the depth of American war weariness, it is not surprising that this administration would be comfortable with doing less and, hence with a smaller military and one less focused on conducting those pesky presence, stability and nation-building missions. Furthermore, the budget clearly reflects the hope that the United States will not be confronted by the need to fight two wars in different parts of the world at the same time.
The first future also is based on the hope that time is on our side. The Department of Defense needs time to draw down end strength, thereby freeing up resources to spend on procurement and R&D. But as Secretary Hagel pointed out there are limits to how quickly personnel can be cut. During this period, readiness and modernization spending must bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Once the reductions in manpower and personnel costs are fully realized, the hope is that the Pentagon will have additional resources to devote to readiness and modernization.
The FY 2015 defense budget reflects the hope, one might even say fantasy, that sequestration can be avoided. Thus, the President’s new five year defense budget proposes spending levels $115 billion higher than the levels mandated by the Budget Control Act. There is also a proposal for an Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative that would by-pass the spending limits imposed by sequestration, adding $22 billion for defense in FY 2015.
The second future is about fears, largely those possibilities or conditions the administration can neither predict nor control. The most important of these is the behavior of potential adversaries. Remember the reset with Russia? How has that been working out for the administration lately? China is growing its military at a steady, even impressive rate and complementing its increased military power with increasingly belligerent rhetoric and behavior. A truly wily adversary would certainly wait until sequestration has had its full effect on the U.S. military. But sometimes the bad guys make mistakes. There may not be time for the Department of Defense to successfully manage the current draw down and build a new military.
The FY 2015 budget also reflects the fear that the U.S. may not be able to retain its military-technological edge. The reality is that, in Secretary Hagel’s words, “the development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations that means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.” We may not have the resources or, even if we can scrounge them up, the time, to build a military that retains its erstwhile technological superiority as well as the necessary speed and reach to engage opponents on the other side of the world.
The administration doesn’t control Congress. Secretary Hagel repeatedly warned of the consequences of letting sequestration take full effect. The FY 2015 defense budget assumes that Congress will pass a budget on time (no continuing resolution), go along with cuts in military compensation and a new round of base closures beginning in 2017 and permit reductions in the size of the National Guard and Reserves. In recent years, Congress has shown no appetite for any of these steps. In addition, on more than one occasion the legislative branch has specifically prohibited the Pentagon from eliminating capabilities deemed unnecessary or too costly.
Given all that the administration is hoping for and what it fears, the force posture reductions and investment decisions proposed by Secretary Hagel are not unreasonable, although they are still quite painful, particularly for the Army. The proposed budget preserves the All-Volunteer Force, the nuclear triad, 11 aircraft carriers, missile defenses, nuclear attack submarines and the DDG-51 destroyer. It also seeks to invest in U.S. military superiority for the long-run with the commitment to the long-range strike platform, advanced jet engine development, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, cyber warfare, a new frigate-size surface combatant and a next-generation armored fighting vehicle. Let’s just hope that Congress gives the defense department the necessary resources and that our adversaries stay their hands.
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