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An altered landscape

After months of debate, contemplation and worry inside the Iron Triangle, Thursday was the day the big crunch became real.

No more leaks and speculation -- the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry are now looking at an actual roadmap for what could happen to America’s forces and programs for the coming few years, one that will leave the services with diminished reach and contractors big and small wondering about their futures.

There was no huge single victim as in years past, when DoD cancelled the Army’s Future Combat Systems or truncated the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor. Indeed, much of Secretary Panetta's and Gen. Dempsey’s announcement was expected – major end strength reductions to the Army and Marine Corps; delays to the F-35; calls to reform pay, benefits and retirement – though some of it did come as a surprise.

For example, if you thought America’s strategic shift to the Western Pacific meant a privileged status for seapower, that was not borne out.

The Navy will lose seven cruisers and two amphibious transports from its current fleet, and endure delays across its shipbuilding program. Its Ohio-replacement ballistic missile submarine gets pushed back two years; a new amphibious assault ship is delayed by one year; a Virginia-class submarine is pushed out of the future years defense plan, as are two littoral combat ships and eight Joint High Speed Vessels.

DoD’s budget documents Thursday also mentioned generically that the Navy will give up some “fleet logistics ships,” but the number was unclear – the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee, which howled about the announcement, said the fleet would end up down a total of 19 ships. That means the Navy will fall ever shorter of its onetime “floor” of 313, which as we’ve already heard, the Navy may need to just bury at sea.

If there’s a silver lining for the Navy, it’s that DoD will keep its 11 beloved aircraft carriers, 10 air wings and its big-deck amphibious ships. Pentagon officials probably reckoned this process was going to be tough enough without going up against the carrier cabal and the Marine Corps.

That doesn’t mean congressional opponents slept through Thursday’s announcement. HASC chair Rep. Buck McKeon blasted “President Obama’s vision of an America that is weakened, not strengthened, by our men and women in uniform.”

McKeon, a California Republican, renewed his declaration “not to be the chairman who presided over a hollowed force,” concluding: “This month the House Armed Services Committee will continue and intensify our rigorous oversight, keeping in mind that while the President proposes, Congress disposes.”

Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes issued an acid statement all but accusing Obama of helping potential enemies.

“PLA Admirals will welcome the news that the President has no plans to catch up to China’s sixty attack submarines nor to invest in a missile defense system that can rival China's mounting arsenal of missiles,” he said. “North Koreans will feel more secure as America prepares to dismiss almost 1 in 6 soldiers.  Tehran will be pleased that one-third less American cruisers are slated to patrol the world’s sea lanes.  Foreign shipyards will embrace a shift toward outsourcing defense manufacturing jobs.”

The Air Force fared a little better, losing six tactical squadrons, leaving it with 54, as well as 130 cargo planes. HASC critics said this would leave the U.S. less equipped to deal with the “tyranny of distance” as part of its shift to the Western Pacific, and would worsen the strain on the Air Force’s already overworked airlift fleet.

The Air Force’s new plan to “divest” 38 of those cargo planes – its C-27J Spartan mini-lifters – represented the end of its latest inter-service tussle with the Army. At one time, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was making a solemn pledge to Congress that he had given his word to former Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey that the blue-suiters would do right by the C-27, which began as an Army program. Troops on the battlefield needed a smaller cargo plane to resupply their forward bases, the Army said.

But the Air Force eventually got hold of the C-27, as you’ve read about before, scaled it back and now has declared it a “niche capability.” That whole getting to rough fields thing? Turns out C-130s can do the job just fine, according to DoD’s documents on Thursday:

“In practice, we did not experience the anticipated airfield constraints for C-130 operations in Afghanistan and expect those constraints to be marginal in future scenarios. Since we have ample inventory of C-130s and the current cost to own and operate them is lower, we no longer need – nor can we afford – a niche capability like the C-27J aircraft. The Air Force and the Army will establish joint doctrine relating to direct support.”
So we can all look forward to that.

Perhaps the most intimidating aspects of DoD’s announcement Thursday were the things it didn’t say. As it cuts eight brigade combat teams, the Army also is reviewing is "future organizing construct" -- how will that play out with Army leaders' commitment to scale back their stateside "generating force" and make their remaining combat power that much more effective? And we don’t know yet how much officials will delay the F-35 or the Ground Combat Vehicle, and what pushing them to the right will actually mean for the future force. With this budget forecast, is a delay a kiss of death?

Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter was asked Thursday about the standard wisdom that delays often mean cost increases, which mean program unit reductions, which mean additional cost increases – the death spiral. Won’t that happen with all these programs pushed down the line?

We’ll just have to make sure it doesn’t, he said, in so many words. And there lies the key to the future of the Defense Department. The coming years and months will put the Building’s sometime commitment to hard-nosed, cost-conscious, disciplined acquisitions to the ultimate test. If it can knuckle down, it may realize Obama and Panetta’s vision of a leaner, meaner and more effective force.

But if it can’t -- if GCV, and the new Air Force bomber, and the Navy’s Flight III destroyers, and especially the F-35 -- do not perform about exactly in line with expectations, we may well see another judgment day like Thursday’s before very long.

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