The U.S. defense budget is in danger of being swamped in a tsunami of debt and deficit reduction plans. Proposals for massive defense cuts are proliferating. There is the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Paul-Frank proposal and, most recently, the plan put forward by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn that calls for one trillion dollars in reductions over ten years. Some of these budget plans are agnostic as to how the cuts should be taken, leaving it up to the Pentagon and the military services to decide how to absorb the pain. Others make specific programmatic recommendations that generally involve axing any controversial programs.
Facing a significant decline in available resources, the instinctive reaction by the Department of Defense (DoD) will be to try and save as much of what they have as possible. No less an individual as the outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman General Cartwright has suggested as much in recent interviews with defense writers. First, DoD will try and avoid making hard choices by reducing operations and maintenance accounts. Next it will stretch out acquisition programs, causing their overall costs to go up even as expenditures in the near-term decline. Third, the Pentagon will reduce manning of existing units, essentially hollowing out the force but avoiding eliminating entire formations with the loss of senior billets for general officers. Finally, and only when pushed to the wall will the military actually reduce force structure.
The problem with this approach is that it is essentially backwards looking. It assumes that today’s forces and capabilities are the ones that will be most needed in the future and should be preserved. It also exacerbates the tendency of members of Congress to argue for the preservation of aging systems that the military would like to axe early in order to save on their maintenance and sustainment costs. This approach fails to recognize that smart investments in new capabilities can actually reduce long-term defense costs and even improve the performance of the force.
One commonly assailed program in a number of defense budget reduction plans is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and specifically the F-35B, the short takeoff and landing variant. This is a short-sighted approach that fails to recognize the additional operational flexibility DoD will gain by deploying the F-35B. The operation of U.S. and Italian Harriers in Libya is a clear demonstration of the value of vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft. The F-35B will be able to operate from the U.S. fleet of large deck amphibious warfare ships, thus doubling the number of ships from which the U.S. can deploy high performance aircraft. Deploying the F-35Bs will reduce the demand on the Navy’s nuclear- powered aircraft carriers. A Navy task force consisting of an F-35B-equipped amphib, Aegis capable DDG-51/CG 47 and an SSGN or Virginia-class submarine with cruise missiles could defeat the next Libyan-class threat almost singlehandedly.
A combination of large deck aircraft carriers and aircraft-deploying amphibs can address the current mid-intensity threat while providing deterrence of prospective future long-term high-intensity adversaries. It will be difficult for DoD to meet the range of challenges the nation is likely to face in the future cost effectively with a force that consists only of the big aircraft carriers. Moreover, operating the nuclear carriers is a very expensive proposition. Buying the F-35B makes sense both in terms of operational flexibility and overall cost-effectiveness.
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