With the Pentagon set to unveil its fiscal year 2015 budget request on March 4 – having the benefits of knowing its topline and being able to avoid across-the-board cuts – analysts are trying to predict how the Defense Department will trim its budget to stay within the $520 billion cap.
For Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, money equals policy and therefore the FY ’15 budget will reflect the Obama administration’s preferences on several major policy decisions.
“The amount of money is really not a problem and I think, all things considered, given our debt problems and everything else, that the Pentagon has enough money,” he said Tuesday at an American Security Project event. But, he added, “within the budget, you have to make a number of, I think, important decisions.”
At the top of his list is nuclear weapons. DoD will have to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad in the next several years, and now would be a good time to decide if the administration wants to stay at the number of weapons agreed on in the New START treaty or if the United States will dip lower.
“According to the Congressional Budget Office, if you do it the way the services want, [the modernization effort] is going to cost you $360 billion,” he said, noting that the Navy is developing new ballistic missile submarines and the Air Force would need to develop new bombers and modernize the land-based missiles.
But if the administration decides to keep fewer nuclear weapons–Korb suggested the United States could have 1,000 and still be safe–the Navy and Air Force could procure fewer subs and bombers and “use that as a way to keep within the budget.”
For the Army, and to a lesser extent the Marine Corps, the big policy issue to be determined in this year’s budget will be the balance of active and Guard and Reserve forces. The Army needs to draw down to 490,000 soldiers from a wartime high of 570,000, and the Marine Corps will need to come down to 182,000 from about 202,000.
“Given how well the Guard and Reserve performed–none of us knew they would do so well in Iraq and Afghanistan–you can go lower, I would say as low as about 420,000,” he said of the Army. He added the Marine Corps could probably drop to about 150,000. “Now, is there a risk? Yes, there’s always a risk.”
But, he noted, the next conflicts are more likely to involve Special Operations Forces and drones instead of land armies, and relying on the reserves more heavily would allow the services to save a lot of money and reduce their infrastructure needs.
Lastly, Korb said this year might be the year to settle the debate over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Though many people consider the program “too big to cancel,” Korb instead argued “there’s no reason why the Navy should have to buy this darn thing.” He said the Air Force and Marine Corps would have to continue on with the program despite its rising cost, but he said the Navy could pull out of the F-35 program and instead procure more of its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet–which he touted as meeting mission requirements for a third the cost of an F-35.