Double the Savings: Pentagon Reforms and Cutbacks

Michael E. O’Hanlon

This year, the Pentagon will conduct a systematic review of its global strategy and the forces and weapons designed to carry it out.

It’s considering major changes to its weapons modernization and force structure plans that, ironically, would substantially exceed the changes President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made in the defense posture they inherited from the Clinton administration in 2001.

Among the possible changes: reducing by a third or more the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor and possibly also the joint strike fighter, cutting the Navy’s aircraft carriers from 12 to 11, slowing the Army’s combat system concept for replacing tanks and fighting vehicles, and reducing the number of Marine Corps amphibious ships. While defense spending would still rise faster than inflation, these changes might allow the annual Pentagon budget to be cut by nearly $10 billion.

Mr. Rumsfeld has discussed transforming the military from an industrial age behemoth to a quick and lethal information age strike force. But while the Afghanistan and Iraq war plans were indeed innovative (if also deeply flawed, particularly in the Iraq stabilization effort), the military has not made dramatic changes in its basic force structure, doctrine or technology modernization programs.

New weapons have been introduced, and efforts that Mr. Rumsfeld inherited, such as missile defense and Army restructuring, have been accelerated. But most new weapons simply have been added to the Clinton modernization plan. Mr. Rumsfeld and the services have profited from a post-9/11 political environment that allowed the Pentagon’s annual budget to grow from $300 billion in 2000 to $400 billion in 2005 and $500 billion in 2009.

Apart from the Army’s Crusader howitzer and Comanche helicopter, few new systems have been canceled. And Mr. Rumsfeld’s much ballyhooed global posture review, designed to restructure America’s bases abroad, is more pragmatic than it is path-breaking.

But as former CEO Rumsfeld appreciates from his corporate days, tight financial constraints can force tough decisions. And President Bush, a new convert to deficit reduction, appears intent on restraining even the military’s budget. This must be done at a time when the Army and Marine Corps probably need to grow by much more than Mr. Rumsfeld has acknowledged, meaning that truly tough decisions will need to be made in other parts of the Pentagon.

The Pentagon’s apparent plans for reforms and cutbacks, while headed in the right direction, are incomplete. We should be able to find savings of at least twice the magnitude now proposed.

In weapons, the Pentagon should emphasize modernizing what we put on planes, ships and vehicles—electronics, sensors, radios, robotics, computers, munitions—rather than the weapons themselves. We can also save money simply by finding more clever and innovative ways to operate our forces, as the Navy has begun to do. Consider these additional options:

  • Reduce the joint strike fighter program even more than the Pentagon is reportedly considering. The total purchase by all services combined could be cut from some 2,500 planes to 1,000. That can be done by keeping planes such as F-16s flying longer and expediting the further development of armed, unmanned combat aerial vehicles as the longer-term solution.
  • View the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey as a technology demonstration project as well as a special forces capability—not a systematic means of replacing amphibious assault helicopters with tilt-rotor aircraft. The planned buy could be cut by two-thirds, to perhaps 100 to 150.
  • Refit and refurbish existing Los Angeles-class subs rather than accelerating procurement of the Virginia-class subs at more than $2 billion each.
  • The Navy, rather than keeping a permanent presence in certain key areas, will increasingly surge ships to participate in exercises or respond to crises. But it will maintain a presence in places such as the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific, home porting more ships near those areas to do it more affordably.

The Navy should increasingly “rotate crews, not ships.” With this approach, already used on specialized vessels today, ships can remain overseas 18 to 24 months; crews are rotated in and out by plane, conserving the time that at present is usually wasted in transoceanic travel. As a result, the Navy could get by with 10 carriers and 10 percent to 20 percent fewer surface ships.

  • Delay the Army’s “future combat system” by five years and cut research funding by more than half in the meantime. The Army is already fielding a new capability, the Stryker Brigade, of which it is building six.
  • Cut U.S. nuclear forces even more quickly and deeply than envisioned by the Moscow Treaty, allowing retirement of some Minuteman missiles and more conversions of Trident subs to conventional missions. In addition, the Pentagon should scale back the cost of missile defense programs to $6 billion a year rather than $10 billion.

With a Republican president and Congress, and a nation at war, the politics are favorable for making these kinds of tough choices. Now we just have to get on with it.