The military services’ nightmares came true Thursday when Secretary Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey unveiled the long-dreaded end strength and program cuts they plan to include in this year’s budget submission to Congress.
The Army’s end strength would be reduced to 490,000; the Marine Corps’ would be reduced to 182,000. The Navy will lose seven cruisers and delay several other major ship programs; the Air Force will lose six fighter squadrons, leaving it with 54, and “divest” many cargo aircraft: 27 C-5As, 65 C-130s and all of its C-27s.
Defense officials also announced they’ll slow procurement of the F-35 Lightning II and the Ground Combat Vehicle; “curtail” the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System; and “significantly reduce” the Joint Air-Ground Munition. The budget eliminates the Global Hawk Block 30, the Defense Weather Satellite System and the Army and Marines’ planned fleetwide upgrades to their fleet of Humvees.
Panetta, Dempsey and DoD’s supporting documents tried to emphasize the places where the budget will preserve or protect existing weapons or capabilities – such as the Navy’s 11 carriers and 10 air wings – or invest in new ones, such as cyber-warfare. Two of the Air Force’s top priorities – its new bomber and tanker – also are safe for now.
The U.S. nuclear triad, which comprises Navy ballistic submarines, Air Force bombers and land-based missiles, also survived in this year’s budget submission, though defense officials hinted it could shrink or change down the road.
Overall, however, the story is about cancellations and delays. It wasn’t immediately clear what DoD’s delays to F-35 will do to the already nebulous projections about when it will be fielded, but they could push the jets’ initial operational capability into the 2020s or beyond.
DoD’s budget documents also said that the Army’s end strength reductions would reflect eight brigade combat teams, “however, the future organizing construct of the Army is under review.” So stand by to stand by.
Other details were spelled out: The Navy will delay its Ohio-replacement ballistic missile sub by two years. It will delay one amphibious assault ship by a year – possibly the as-yet unnamed LHA 7; push one Virginia-class submarine outside the future years defense plan; cut two littoral combat ships from the plan; cut eight Joint High Speed Vessels from the plan; and retire two amphibious transports and push their replacements outside the plan.
The Army will pursue the “regional alignment” you’ve read about here, connecting brigade combat teams with each combatant commander, “establishing language and cultural expertise to better shape the security environment.” The Marines, as they come away from the war in Afghanistan, will “return to an afloat posture, with the capability to rapidly respond to crises as they emerge,” DoD’s documents said.
The Pentagon’s budget “preview” is the Beltway equivalent of one of those “airpower demonstrations” that troops call down over Afghanistan – a loud, low-speed pass designed to terrify Congress. The message: If lawmakers don’t like dealing with the sacrifices required by $487 billion in reduced budget growth over the next 10 years, they’ll hate dealing with an additional $500 billion, which would be automatically “sequestered” in 2013 unless Congress can prevent it.
Before it gets there, however, Congress first must absorb the submission it has in hand, which will make for no shortage of grandstanding and histrionics in the coming weeks. And Congress retains the ultimate authority here, so programs the Pentagon’s proposal would delay or eliminate could end up surviving. This is just the first plunge on the roller coaster.