There’s a high likelihood that when Congress grasps the impact of the deficit agreement it embraced last week, legislators will move to modify the law. With the economy faltering and interest rates at near-record lows, it’s a lot easier to borrow more money right now than live with the fallout from major cutbacks in federal spending. Nonetheless, there is a real possibility that some of the mandated cuts will occur, and Pentagon policymakers therefore need to be thinking about how the reductions would be allocated.
Secretary Gates left office insisting that the time had come to rein in military pay and benefits, while protecting the modernization accounts that will purchase the next generation of weapons. However, that was not the approach that he exhibited while in office, and it is not the natural inclination of the political system. When the going gets tough, Washington prefers to protect people programs and slash investment. Thus, there will probably be additional cuts to modernization accounts even though those accounts had already taken big hits before the deficit accord was signed into law.
The irony of the deficit agreement is that it will probably increase waste at the Pentagon even as it reduces spending, because weapons programs will be nudged off of carefully planned schedules to save money in the near term. In other words, the weapons will cost less each year, but ultimately cost more as economies of scale and production efficiencies are sacrificed to deficit reduction. One way of avoiding such waste is to eliminate programs that aren’t essential while keeping high-priority efforts on their current vector. But in order to do that, the department needs to agree on what its highest-priority investment programs actually are. Right now, no such list exists.
The Army went through an analogous exercise during the Reagan years, highlighting the “Big Five” weapons programs most important to its future effectiveness. Secretary Panetta might initiate a similar undertaking, asking each one of the military departments to identify its five highest-priority investment programs, the programs that must be nurtured and protected even as military spending heads into a prolonged downturn. Panetta’s office could act as an arbiter to assure service priorities exhibit sufficient jointness. For instance, if the Air Force’s priorities neglected space programs benefiting the entire joint force in order to focus exclusively on things with wings, Panetta’s staff could intervene to adjust the list.
The end result would be a list of fifteen top-priority weapons programs — five from each military department — that the executive and legislative branch agree must be preserved because of the extraordinarily high leverage they would bring to future military campaigns. The Air Force would undoubtedly single out the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and KC-46 aerial refueling tanker for inclusion on its list, since both are crucial to the preservation of U.S. air dominance. The Navy would probably single out the Virginia-class submarine and upgrades to Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, while leaving the Littoral Combat Ship off the list because its contribution to future warfighting is not yet clear.
Being left off the list wouldn’t doom a program, but it would signal that the program is a suitable candidate for restructuring if budget needs dictate. Programs on the list, though, would be viewed as sacrosanct — efforts that must be kept on their current schedules to assure U.S. forces can fight and win in the future. Every player in the system would know what the Big Five programs of each military department were, and that would make it harder for “bean counters” to impair the progress of those critical efforts. Having such a list is no panacea for the budgetary chaos that lies ahead, but it would be an improvement over the present situation, where there is little clarity in Congress or the executive branch as to which programs must be protected for the sake of national security.
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