While you were relaxing at the beach in August, Bloomberg News was delivering death notices for many of the military’s planned weapons programs. Longtime Bloomberg Pentagon correspondent Tony Capaccio revealed in an August 22 story that policymakers are planning to cut military research and procurement accounts by a staggering 16% if the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act are triggered in the fiscal year beginning October 1 — as they almost certainly will be.
Consider what that would mean for military procurement. The Pentagon requested $105 billion in budget authority for procurement in fiscal 2014, counting both the $99.3 billion base-budget request and the $5.6 billion overseas-contingency request (mainly for Afghanistan). That’s a reduction of 11% from the $118 billion spent on procurement in fiscal 2012. If an additional 16% is then cut from the 2014 request, it falls to $88 billion — meaning that over a two-year period, the funds available for all military procurement would plummet by about 25%.
Obviously, a reduction of that magnitude would force the Pentagon to abandon or drastically scale back many of its biggest weapons programs. The department’s acquisition chief, Frank Kendall, has already indicated that a handful of high-priority efforts like the F-35 fighter would be protected from cuts. That makes sense given the cuts absorbed by the F-35 effort in prior years, cuts that have slowed the plane’s progress towards achieving a unit cost comparable to the existing F-16. But if F-35 and some other items are insulated from new cuts, that means the remaining programs in the procurement account would have to be cut even more than the 16% average reduction for the whole account.
Although sequestration was conceived as a way of saving money, the near-term effect of such cuts on military procurement will be to make weapons programs less efficient. Many of the biggest efforts like the Virginia-class attack submarine and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor are managed under multiyear contracts designed to drive down unit costs. But those contracts assume stable levels of funding to deliver good outcomes, and sequestration threatens to impair that assumption. For instance, insidedefense.com reported on August 30 that a billion dollars in potential savings on the V-22 will be wiped out if the Navy stretches production in response to budget pressures, making each aircraft less economical to buy.
If sequestration is not repealed or substantially modified, then the only sensible response will be some form of budgetary triage. Must-have programs like F-35 and the Air Force’s new tanker will go forward largely unscathed, other programs will be delayed, and a sizable number of efforts will simply have to be terminated. The proposal to slash purchases of Littoral Combat Ships reported in Defense News this week presumably reflects a tentative determination to place that program in the third category of triage candidates.
It is paradoxical that such decisions are being made even as the Obama Administration urges Congress to authorize new military action in the Middle East. Having generated almost all of the defense savings realized in its first term by killing weapons programs, the administration now must comply with deficit-reduction mandates that threaten to unravel what’s left of the defense modernization program. That doesn’t mean the Pentagon will abandon the president’s Asia-Pacific strategy, but it does mean that our warfighters will have to implement that strategy using weapons designed for another time, because funds for new technology are disappearing fast.
Find Archived Articles: