A Scalpel, Not a Hatchet
Why is Obama cutting so little out of the Pentagon budget? He could cut even more.
Clearly, the shift in the Air Force is toward unmanned aircraft—the “drones” equipped with cameras and, in many cases, smart bombs. The budget sustains the 65 that are flying combat missions at any one time (meaning there are around 200 drones in all). Panetta is also building up the infrastructure so that the 65 can be expanded to 85. And it’s building new models, including Fire Scout, which is designed to operate at sea (presumably to monitor Chinese vessels in the South China Sea and, perhaps, suspicious cargo boats floating in or out of North Korea’s harbors).
The much-publicized “pivot” to the Pacific means that Panetta (no doubt with a nod from the White House) is leaving untouched the Navy’s fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious ships, letting slip only one submarine and a couple of smaller ships, and then merely as a bit of bookkeeping to place their delivery a little bit after the five-year defense plan.
China’s ambitions—and, more significantly, our Asian allies’ growing worries about those ambitions—may justify a recalibration of how many ships we need to build in the coming years. But are 11 carriers really needed? And given all the firepower and defensive radar on carriers these days, does each one need to be escorted by all the cruisers, frigates and destroyers that have followed them around in the past?
And what about the nuclear weapons arsenal? At the last big Pentagon news conference, on Jan. 5, when Panetta and President Obama himself outlined their new defense strategy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, Michele Flournoy, said at a briefing afterward that the budget would reflect the finding that national security can be preserved with a smaller nuclear force.
But now we see the budget, and the only apparent change in this realm is a two-year delay in production of a new Trident missile-carrying submarine. Meanwhile, the commitment to the “strategic triad”—the arsenal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers—seems sacrosanct, complete with plans to build a new bomber.
A missed opportunity for huge savings came when Panetta announced that he remained committed to building the F-35 stealth fighter plane—2,443 aircraft in all, including the F-35B for the Marines. He will only be slowing down the production schedule to allow for further testing, followed possibly by changes in the plane itself. This slowdown will save $15 billion over the next five years. But he could save much more by shutting it down. If more planes are needed for some reason, he could build more modified F-16s and F-18s. They’re old, but they seem to be good enough that the Air Force and Navy are building more of them even now.
The big picture that this budget projects is in sync with the strategic review that Obama unveiled earlier this month: a shift away from Europe to the Pacific and Middle East; a shift away from large-scale, protracted “stability operations” (such as we’ve just been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan) to smaller, shorter operations (involving mainly Special Operations Forces and drones) to “advise and assist” foreign allies fighting insurgents; and a shift away from being able to win two wars at once (always a mythic notion) to being able merely to beat one foe while denying victory to another.
This strategic review was prompted, of course, by the Budget Control Act’s mandated reductions of $487 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years, including $259 billion over the next five. And the budget rolled out by Panetta today marks the first step to fulfilling that.
But, White House and Pentagon officials insist, they would have made these changes, as a response to global conditions, even if the fiscal house were in order.
If that’s the case, the shifts could be sharper, and the cuts could be deeper. More than that, they’re going to have to be. Military personnel and health care costs are skyrocketing. Panetta’s plan assumes reforms and efficiencies that will make some of those costs come down, but the assumption seems far-fetched, the numbers look loose. If those costs can’t be controlled, then savings will have to be found elsewhere. It’s time to take a deeper look at the military’s roles and missions—what they really need to do in the post-Cold War, post-Iraq/Afghanistan world and how much doing those things really has to cost.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.