By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON — In an acknowledgment that the military may be pricing itself out of business, the Air Force on Wednesday called for a shift away from big-ticket weapon systems that take decades to develop and a move toward what Defense Department officials are calling more “agile” high-tech armaments that can be quickly adapted to meet a range of emerging threats.
A 20-year Air Force strategic forecast, spurred in part by looming budget constraints, also calls for a faster pace, with lower price tags, in developing both airmen and the technology they use, warning that the current way of acquiring warplanes and weapons is too plodding.
The report, labeled a “call to action” by the Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, limits itself to how the country’s most tech-heavy military service can adapt to looming threats and budget constraints. But it is also a warning to and an admission from the entire Defense Department that with military compensation and retirement costs rising sharply, the country may soon be unable to afford the military it has without making significant changes to the way it does business.
“To boil this down, we have to buy things very differently and develop and employ our people differently,” said Maj. Gen. David W. Allvin, the author of the report. “We have to behave more like an innovative 21st-century company.”
Between 1998 and 2014, annual compensation costs per active-duty service member increased by 76 percent, to $123,000, while the overall military budget increased by 42 percent — yet, since 2010, the base Defense Department budget has been declining, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. So far, the military has dealt with the sharp increase in personnel costs by cutting the number of service members, and has managed to keep expensive weapons acquisition and technology at the same percentage of the overall budget — around 30 percent — as personnel and maintenance and training.
But with the Army, the largest branch in the military, now headed to its lowest personnel numbers since before the World War II buildup, Defense Department officials, particularly in the Army, warn that more cuts could bring increased risks to deployed service members. While the Air Force and the Navy, with historic reliance on technology, are widely viewed as more willing to make personnel cuts than their Marine and Army counterparts, even officials in those services say there is a limit to how much more they are willing to cut personnel.
It remains unclear how serious the Air Force is about its call to move away from its focus on big, expensive weaponry, in particular advanced fighters and bombers.
Nowhere in the report is there a mention of scaling back on the trouble-plagued F-35 jet fighter — in development for 14 years so far — which was temporarily grounded last month after another in a series of problems.
“They’re still going to buy the Joint Strike Fighter,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, referring to the F-35 warplane. “They’re getting squeezed, but they’re still going to buy the next-generation bomber and the KC-46 tanker” for aerial refueling.
Space and information technology programs would probably be a first target of budget cuts, Defense Department officials said, with a view to building them in a more piecemeal way that would allow for quick adaptation as new technology emerges.
“The notion is, we can’t afford the big-bang programs anymore, so what if we approached it differently, looking at adding capability in smaller chunks?” said Beth McGrath, a director at Deloitte Consulting and a former deputy chief management officer for the Defense Department.