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SecDef: Despite slimmer budgets, acquisitions must continue

Just because the Pentagon's budget won't grow as much as once projected doesn't mean DoD can stop buying the new weapons and equipment it needs, Secretary Panetta said Wednesday in his message to the force. So who wins and who loses? Former Secretary Gates had a rough batch of programs he used to cite as essential, worthy of protection even in Austerity America: It wasn't a formal list, but when Gates spoke about what DoD "must buy," he usually referenced the F-35; the KC-46A; recapitalizing the Army and Marine Corps; and sometimes SSBN(X) and the Navy's cruisers and destroyers.

Panetta, for his part, has not publicly fenced off any particular programs yet, but his Wednesday message repeated Gates' old warning that major parts of the military's arsenal are wearing out, and must be replaced even as DoD looks forward to a decade of flat or diminishing budgets:

The force has been stretched by a decade of combat. We owe you and your families the support you have earned – both on the battlefield and on the home front. To be sure, the current budget constraints will make it all the more challenging to modernize and recapitalize the force. Platforms from the build-up of the 1980s are reaching the end of their shelf life and must be replaced, and units and equipment that have been stressed by a decade of combat must be reset. Going forward, we must ensure that the military gets the effective and affordable weapons it needs by redoubling our efforts to enforce procurement discipline.
"Platforms from the 1980s" describes a lot of stuff -- probably more than what the department will be able to afford to replace any time soon. When will there be some clarity about what gets top priority? That could be part of the ubiquitous, inescapable major strategic review, which Panetta's message said will light the way forward out of this cavern:
I am determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. In order to make the key decisions on how to best implement spending reductions, the President said in April when he unveiled his fiscal framework that “we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world.” As a Department, we are following that approach. We are asking ourselves: What are the essential missions our military must do to protect America and our way of life? What are the risks of the strategic choices we make? And what are the financial costs? Achieving savings based on sound national security policy will serve our nation’s interests, and will also prove more enforceable and sustainable over the long-term.
The study is important, but it's also important not to get too enraptured by Review Messianism.  It might play well with the national audience that has taken a new interest in defense, but it's less than compelling for many in the Beltwoisie -- defense officials use the "we've got to take a look at this situation from soup to nuts" tactic so often it has lost all meaning. The Building is perpetually looking down the road to some glossy new consensus document that it promises will have all the answers, and then disappears without a trace.

Well, that can't happen with the Mother of All Reviews, officials would argue  -- this time it can't just say, "Yep, it's a complex world out there, lot of ins, lot of outs, lot of what-have-yous." This time it has to say, "Those Air Force fighters based in Great Britain are going away, and we're no longer going to prepare to fight two wars simultaneously, so that means the Army can lose X thousand soldiers." Whether Congress ends up going along with those kinds of recommendations, however, is another matter entirely.

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