By Sandra I. Erwin
Unsettled matters such as the future size of U.S. military forces and funding levels beyond 2015 are putting major decisions on hold at the Defense Department. Among them are how to reorganize the armed forces under the “pivot to Asia” strategy and how to modernize the military for its post-Afghanistan future.
Lawmakers asked Pentagon officials Jan. 28 to explain how they plan to carry out President Obama’s policy guidance that calls for the military to “rebalance” its efforts by shifting forces from the Middle East and South Asia to the Pacific Rim. The two-year-old strategy assumes the military will become smaller and invest more money in high-tech weaponry in order to confront well-armed enemies.
Defense officials said they have taken steps toward this rebalance, but are prevented from making investments in new weapons technology until they have a clearer picture of the Pentagon’s fiscal fortunes.
“Uncertainty about future budget reductions make sizing our force problematic and encourages a slower drawdown in our force structure,” said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. “This in turn causes even larger reductions in modernization,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.
The Pentagon is buying weapons such as missile interceptors and radar to defend U.S. forces and allies from North Korean ballistic missiles and Chinese anti-ship weapons, Kendall said. Many modernization programs, however, are stalled because research and procurement accounts are being crowded out by rising personnel costs, and expenditures for military training and operations. “Spending on weapons today is being limited by budget cuts that fall disproportionately on modernization, research and development and procurement,” Kendall said. “The size of the immediate reductions we are experiencing is bad enough,” he said. “Until we reduce our force size to sustainable levels, we will be forced to disproportionately reduce modernization, the very investments that provide us with technological superiority in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere.”
Kendall said it is conceivable that U.S. enemies will surpass American weapons technology if Pentagon investments don’t pick up soon. “On the perspective of technological superiority, the Department of Defense is being challenged in ways that I have not seen for decades, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region,” Kendall said. “Technological superiority is not assured. … This is not a future problem. It is a here-and-now problem.”
The Pentagon’s ability to respond to this challenge, he said, is “severely limited by the current budget situation. While we wrestle with the uncertainty caused by sequestration and therefore the uncertainty about what force size we’ll be able to afford over the long term, we are losing time, an asset that we can never recover.”
Kendall said China’s military investments are increasing in double-digit numbers each year. “Their budget is far smaller than ours, but their personnel costs are also far smaller than ours. Our budgets are going in the opposite direction. By that metric alone, it’s not positive.”
The U.S. defense budget is out of balance today, he said. “I’ve been doing this for about 40 years now, and I have never seen such a big disconnect between our budget request, and [what] we would get back from the Congress.” In 2015, that gap could be as large as $50 billion. “Our budget isn’t just a request for money. It’s also our plan. … So this large disconnect is creating a lot of problems with us from a planning perspective.”
The Bipartisan Budget Act gave the Pentagon some relief from automatic cuts in 2014 and 2015, but the picture is cloudy beyond that. If sequester returns in 2016, the Pentagon would be again scrambling to abruptly cut spending. Reducing force structure typically takes years, and Congress has fought back on various proposals by the Air Force and the Army to save money by retiring aging aircraft fleets.
Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., appeared alarmed by Kendall’s analysis. As one of the Congress’ staunchest hawks, McKeon for the past two years has pushed back against his House colleagues’ zealous budget cutting, and sought unsuccessfully to reverse military spending reductions.
McKeon suggested the Asia pivot is an unrealistic strategy, not supported by sufficient military resources.
“When President Obama announced this rebalance, he assumed the war in Afghanistan was winding down and al-Qaida was on the path to defeat,” McKeon said at the hearing. “If you look over the headlines over the last year, you know that that’s not the case. … So how do we reprioritize the Asia-Pacific while also maintaining sufficient force posture in the Middle East and Africa and sufficient force posture to meet the rest of our military commitments across the globe and to respond to potential crises, all while our force size and defense budget are declining?”
Michael Lumpkin, undersecretary of defense for policy, took a less pessimistic view, and sought to reassure McKeon that this is not a dire situation.
The Pentagon, at worst, may have to slow down the rebalance, Lumpkin said. “I think what we will see as we have requirements in other theaters that our timing and the pace of the rebalance may be subject to adjustments … depending on what the rest of the world has.” He noted that the Department of Defense’s role in the rebalance is only one piece of the broader U.S. government effort that also includes diplomatic and trade initiatives.
Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, said both the Navy and the Air Force plan to rebalance their forces to roughly a 60-40 split by 2020. “Marines are looking at relocating some of their forces, and the Army is having its forces return to home bases out there now that Iraq is over, and as Afghanistan winds down,” he said.
Defense analysts have criticized the administration for putting the military in the position, after two major wars, of having to rapidly adjust to smaller budgets and plan for an unclear future while continuing its current missions.
Budget anxiety is normal in the Defense Department, but the current situation is beyond the pale, said Steven Bucci, a former Army officer and now director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank.
“You always have angst every year about cuts,” he said. Today, however, the problem is not just smaller budgets but not knowing “which direction to turn.” The bipartisan budget deal helped, but not that much. The military still does not know what units will be cut, what the structure of the armed forces will look like in a couple of years, said Bucci. “The republic is not going to collapse, but the military is at risk that it will be poorly prepared for the next event that occurs.”
Paying more attention to Asia is a sound foundation for a strategy, said Bucci. The problem is that the military does not have the assets right now, he added. The Asia pivot strategy “didn’t set up a rational analysis. Instead, it set up a food fight among the military services over budget dollars.”