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Tie Future Budgets to Strategy

With more rounds of defense spending cuts looming, the Pentagon must choose which roles and missions are top priority and which ones aren't important as it drafts future budgets; a move that could no doubt entail risk and the usual round of 'painful choices,' a pair of think tankers advised lawmakers and their staff today on Capitol Hill.

Tom Donnelly, Resident Fellow and Director at the Center for Defense Studies and Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow of Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments both stresssed the need for investment in high-end weapons such as stealthy drones that can defeat anti-access weapons designed to defeat the current crop of U.S. aircraft.

However, such technology may have to come at the expense of personnel costs and weapons that are currently used in asymmetric operations such as MRAPs and unprotected UAVs like the MQ-9 Reapers that are proving so effective in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Said Harrison:

"We started, in 2001, after 9/11 with a force that was not well equipped to do counter-insurgency . . . I think now, in 2011, we have a force that is well equipped to do counter-insurgency, the problem is, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. Quite frankly, I don't think the nation is going to have any appetite to get into another major ground operation, counter-insurgency campaign like Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon. I won't say never but I don't think it's likely to happen in the next decade or two. As a result, we are relatively over-invested in these type of counter insurgency capabilities; things like MRAPs, things like unprotected UAVs, like Predator or Reaper. I don't know that we're going to need 65 Predator orbits in the future, but we're going to have them. So, we have all these investments that we may not need anymore.

Where are we under invested? We're under-invested in long-range systems, in systems that are designed to operate in non-permissive environments where people are actually trying to shoot us down or keep us out. So, I think we've got to shift our focus on investments into longer-range systems at the higher-end, that can operate at denied environments. You can still do that in a down-budget environment but it forces some hard decisions in other parts of your budget in terms of what size of ground force are you going to maintain? Do we need to be sized for two major ground operations occurring near-simultaneously? If not, can we bring down some of that force structure and use the savings to not only help bring down the deficit but to help pay for investments in some of these new areas; I think, these are the choices that we face right now.

Donnelly echoed Harrisson's call for renewed focus on building high-end capabilities as the need for relatively low tech-equipment fades with the end of the U.S.' current wars and the rise of a China that is arming itself to counter American military tech:
I just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia and all the nations in the region from the Philippines and Vietnam all the way to Singapore and Indonesia are nervous as cats about what's happening in the South China Sea.

It's a region of the world we have been increasingly absent from since we underwent our first post Cold War drawdown and did things like close Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval facility there. So, where there's a vacum, the geopolitical nature abhors a vacum. As China develops greater power projection capability they're becoming the 600-pound gorilla in the room.

We've been trying to figure out how to deal with a China that we that we both trade with, want to trade with, want to engage with but that is developing military capacities that can only be used to challenge us. China cannot secure its own trade with anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines and the like. These are inherently challenging capabilities, the kinds of thngs that are used to secure lines of communications.

So, we need to have the geopolitical-strategic question answered ahead of time and we need to pay attention to what the rest of the world is already doing.

We'll see how the Pentagon moves ahead in its efforts to save billions. It's already working on a strategic review to that may influence budget choices in such a manner as described by Harrison and Donnelly; it remains to be seen what lawmakers will think of the tough budget choices that could emerge as a result of that study.

Harrison and Donnelly were speaking at a Aerospace Industries Association-sponsored luncheon to discuss national security spending.

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