Can the military avoid painful budget cuts from another round of sequestration? A new report has a few suggestions.
Convene another round of base-closings. Retire an aircraft carrier. Cut nearly 60,000 Defense Department civilians nationwide.
Those are among the recommendations listed in a report released this week from a non-partisan security think tank whose members include former chiefs of the Navy and Air Force, as well as a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The report from the Stimson Center's Defense Advisory Committee recommends nearly $50 billion in budget cuts. It pitches the plan as a sound, strategy-based alternative to the automatic, across-the-board sequester cuts.
The report, titled "Strategic Agility," looks to avoid involvement in lengthy ground wars in favor of a more flexible, technologically superior fighting force that can rapidly respond to hot spots around the globe.
It stresses investments in advanced space systems, cyber warfare, and special operations forces. That said, the report's recommendations would still send shock waves through the Hampton Roads economy, if implemented.
Another round of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission could put local military installations on the chopping block. Any changes to the U.S. fleet of aircraft carriers could have implications for Newport News Shipbuilding, the largest industrial employer in Virginia. And reducing Defense Department civilians would hit a key employment group in the region.
Congress remains opposed to another BRAC round, which in 2005 shuttered Fort Monroe in Hampton and threatened to close Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.
Critics point to a Government Accountability Report that said the 2005 BRAC failed to deliver on its promised cost savings. One-time construction costs jumped 67 percent and five projects had a one-time cost increase beyond 1,000 percent of what Congress was originally told.
However, the Stimson report said the BRAC process results in eventual cost savings.
"A new BRAC round could focus on relocating units to existing bases and facilities and provide additional savings over the long term," the report said.
Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised the prospect of mothballing three aircraft carriers as part of a larger plan to cut military spending. The Stimson report wouldn't go that far, but it says the U.S. could cut its fleet by a single carrier, plus an air wing, and save $2 billion a year with acceptable risk.
It suggests retiring the USS George Washington, scheduled to enter the Newport News shipyard in fiscal year 2014 for a mid-life overhaul. Once the new carrier Gerald R. Ford is commissioned in 2016, the Navy would have 10 carriers.
When it comes to personnel, the report recommends cutting the Army by an additional 40,000 people. The Army already intends to drop to 490,000 personnel, and going to 450,000 would represent a total cut of one-third.
It recommends cutting the Marine Corps to 160,00 from its currently planned level of 182,100.
"As with the Army recommendation, we reduce Marines' combat strength because we believe it serves U.S. national interests to seek to avoid protected ground wars, which have caused the Marines to fight more like the Army than in their preferred manner over the last decade," the report states.
The report recommends other personnel-related moves that include:
a 20 percent cut in Defense Department headquarters personnel that would save $8 billion per year. The report says these costs have "risen sharply" since 2001 "at the same time that information technologies were permitting private companies to scale back their headquarters staffs significantly."
Reducing travel time associated with training. Defense uses "an obsolete centralized training model that costs $38 billion annually," the report says. While it makes sense in some cases, it is inefficient elsewhere. The private sector routinely sees double-digit savings by training on-site, and the Defense Department should follow this approach.
The number of Defense Department civilians has risen 17 percent since 2001. The report recommends cutting 58,000 personnel by 2015. "This drop, while precipitous, is smaller than the draw-downs of civilians following the Cold War, when 69,000 civilians were cut in a single year, 1993." That would save $5 billion.