The Pentagon is staring at the prospect of as much as $850 billion in budget reductions over the next 10 years and beyond -- which, as DoD and service officials keep saying, will require some major strategic recalculations. Even now, we can only imagine what's in the PowerPoint slide decks rocketing back and forth across the Building as staffs come up with alternatives and scenarios for absorbing those kinds of cuts. The only upside, from DoD's perspective, is that it sounds as though the White House and Congress are sold on the idea of a grand strategy that lays out how to move forward and where to accept risks.
Two old caveats remain in effect, though: First, whatever the Pentagon comes up with has to survive Congress, where defense lawmakers in the age of austerity will fight harder than they ever have to keep their pieces of the military-industrial complex. And second: The Pentagon needs a better bad guy than "persistant global instability" when it's fighting to keep budgets and hardware, and we all know what that means: China. It's a fair bet that the Mother of All Reviews will call for the military to keep or increase its focus on the Western Pacific, even as it dials back the U.S. forces positioned elsewhere around the world.
Here's one vision for how this movie plays out:
U.S. Army and Air Force units stationed in Europe, with less of a constituency in Congress, might be the first to go; in fact, DoD might just cut them altogether as opposed to spending the money to relocate them in the U.S. That doesn't mean the American presence would be dialed all the way back to zero: Commanders almost certainly would keep open Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, which is essential for helping troops wounded in the war zone, and they might try to collapse all the remaining Army and Air Force units onto nearby Ramstein Air Force Base, which would become a BRAC-style megabase and keep a U.S. toehold on the Continent. Meanwhile, the U.S. could make clear that it would continue to cover Europe with its nuclear umbrella, just in case, but NATO would be on its own as far as future conventional operations.
With thousands of troops cut from the Army and Marine Corps despite the continued need for a U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, those countries would probably join Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia as venues in America's indefinite campaign of drone strikes. The biggest increase would probably take place in Afghanistan, where a few thousand U.S. special operators would keep the pressure on terrorist leadership, and where American budget cuts would mean Afghanistan's army and police would probably disintegrate from lack of funds and corruption. With smaller budgets and a lower political profile for the war, given that the violence in Afghanistan wouldn't be claiming American lives, U.S. commanders would need to rely on drone strikes in the places where they before had used full-scale, hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency tactics.
If DoD used the magic of strategy to determine that land-based Air Force jets and UAVs could provide all the air support necessary, the Navy might be spared from having to supply at least one aircraft carrier to support operations in Afghanistan. But that might cost the Navy that ship altogether, rather than freeing it up for other duties. (The brass already wants the 50 year-old USS Enterprise out of the fleet yesterday, so that would probably be the ship that goes away.) The rest of the Navy's fleet, along with the Air Force's, would continue to age and shrink from the combination of budget cuts and expensive acquisitions programs.
Some major weapons programs, however, would probably survive. Although the F-35 Lightning II is everyone's favorite candidate for the guillotine, it may prove too big to eliminate -- we've seen how many lawmakers have a stake in its survival, and how cancellation would leave the Air Force, and especially the Marines, completely in the lurch. But the F-35, along with a little help from that old magic of doctrine and strategy, could imperil the Air Force's next-generation bomber. If DoD decides that it can "service" the targets the bomber would have with a combination of cruise missiles, new combat UAVs and land- and sea-based F-35s (under an "Air-Sea Battle" concept, let's say) it might decide there's no need to buy a new stealth bomber and try to get some savings from that program.
The Air Force's KC-46A tanker seems non-negotiable; due to the age and condition of the KC-135s, it would probably win in a Sophie's Choice situation over the bomber. Would the Navy persist with its next-generation ballistic missile sub over replacing its aging cruisers and destroyers? Probably, in the belief its comparatively cheaper littoral combat ships could be repurposed to take additional jobs in the surface force.
The biggest loser, as we've written before, would be the Army: Not only would it lose tens of thousands of soldiers, it would have to justify the funding it wants to recapitalize its Humvees, buy its Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, its Ground Combat Vehicle, and a new helicopter -- all after it had just spent billions on a new fleet of Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected Vehicles. (And spent a decade wasting as much as 45 percent of its acquisitions budget per year.) Look, the Army brass would say, we've got "capability gaps," and that's why we need all this stuff. But so long as Americans stay allergic to ground interventions for the next long while, that will be hard sell. Then again, Vietnam followed Korea as the second Iraq war followed the first, so you never know.
Austerity America would probably keep its forces positioned against China; in fact, it might increase them, with more submarines based in the Pacific, an aircraft carrier moved forward to Guam, or some other changes. Everywhere else, however, both at home and abroad, the force would likely be thinned out or pulled back, and be able to count less on getting the newest, expensive gear. As flare-ups or crises took place around the globe, policymakers in Washington might have to bite their tongues and lower their ambitions, to bring their rhetoric more in line with America's reduced reach.
What do you think? How would you block out America's strategic posture after $850 billion in defense cuts?