In the coming years, the Pentagon should look to cutting troop strength to pre-9-11 levels, slash redundant and poorly performing programs while reevaluating the services' core missions, all in an effort to shave 10 percent or more off the Defense Department's expenses, members of an influential Washington think tank argued this week.
Facing the prospects of a continually rising deficit and national debt, the Pentagon must look at how it can save enough money to help keep America's deficit in check while ensuring it's ability to project power.
Once the war in Afghanistan winds down, "we may have to reverse that fifteen percent increase" in troop numbers that occured over the last decade," said The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon during a Dec. 22 presentation at the think tank. "So we go back to Clinton era levels on the Army and the Marine Corps; that is one big strategic concept."
Still, this will only be feasible if and when the war in Afghanistan ends. And, "obviously, if we were to have another decade like the one we're now finishing just had, we probably wouldn't want to go to a smaller Army and Marine Corps."
Such cuts should take place "in the next presidential term" as the economy improves and the fight in Afghanistan ends, said O'Hanlon.
This comes as White House officials are reportedly telling the Pentagon to chop $90 billion from its budget plans for the next five years, starting with a $12 billion cut for FY-12.
Beyond winding down the war in Afghanistan and reducing troop levels, a further 10 percent in savings could be realized by streamlining redundant or poorly performing weapon systems and reevaluating core missions, O'Hanlon went on to say.
"A good example here would be tactical aircraft modernization where we're building a Super Hornet for the Navy, planning build the F-35 for the Air Force Navy and Marine corps, completing the purchase of the F-22 program, using a lot more drone aircraft than we ever had before and modernizing munitions that are capable of fare more precise attacks than had ever been possible in human history," said O'Hanlon. "That full range of modernization is arguably excessive."
When asking "what's the healthiest way to build a long-term economy that's strong and therefore a national defense posture that's sustainable, you may decide to take some risk and have a little bit less tactical air modernization," said O'Hanlon.
Next on his list is most obvious for any Pentagon-watcher; cut programs that aren't performing according to schedule and budget such as the Army's now-cancelled Future Combat Systems project.
Perhaps most difficult to achieve, is the academic's suggestion that the DoD should look at cutting certain core missions from each service's portfolio that are less than likely to be needed in the future.
"Here, a classic example might be Marine Corps amphibious assault," said O'Hanlon, calling into question the Marines' historic bread and butter.
"I don't pretend to suggest that forced entry operations are altogether a thing of the past," said O'Hanlon. "But, we do have certain capabilities for carrying this out already."
He then pointed to the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor as "dubious ways to further our capabilities in this area."
"If it's a mission that may seem to be sort of beyond the heyday of it's likely application, this may be an are of modernization where we're willing to run some more risks," said O'Hanlon. "We've got to introduce a spirit of trading off short-term calculated gambles of how we can make do with a little bit less to shore up our longer-term economic foundations of national power."
O'Hanlon was joined by former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin, who called the nation's deficit and debt problems as one of the most important issues to be tackled if the nation is to remain strong in the face of competition from nations such as China.
However, fellow Brookings academic Robert Kagan refuted the notion that "saving $55 billion or $60 billion a year so the defense budget can make its fair share of the sacrifice is too risky and not necessary. We do have to solve our budget crisis but we would be fooling ourselves and taking very great risks" by cutting defense spending.