Defense budget cuts compel military transformation

By James Kitfield, National Journal

The Bush administration's much-touted "transformation" of the United States military has always been something of a faith-based initiative.

It is founded on an unshakable belief in the transformative powers of Information Age technology and best business practices, and a conviction that emerging dangers to U.S. security are too unpredictable to be identified by the armed services' traditional "threat-based" analyses.

The traditional approach, the transformation advocates said, left the U.S. military merely a smaller, outdated mirror image of its Cold War self, based primarily on Air Force fighter wings, Navy aircraft carrier battle groups, and conventional Army divisions.

From the outset, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his aides in the Office of the Secretary of Defense pushed instead a "capabilities-based" approach to defense planning. The capabilities that OSD very much preferred were space-based, precision-guided, rapidly deployable, joint service, modular, and unconventional.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an unconventional war in Afghanistan, a protracted guerrilla campaign in Iraq, and ballooning budget deficits, it seems that, like it or not, the services are about to see the light of transformation. Radical change is upon them. As just one recent example, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz signed Program Budget Decision 753 on December 23, 2004, and the document was quickly leaked to the press. It outlines nearly $30 billion of cuts in planned defense spending over the next six years. Many of the programs targeted for cuts are much prized by service leaders.

At the same time, programs associated with the Rumsfeld transformation effort are slated to receive significant boosts in spending over the same period. Combined with a fiscal 2006 Defense budget request expected in early February, and the Quadrennial Defense Review study scheduled to begin later next month, the budget memorandum is expected by many analysts to give the clearest indication to date of the direction and long-term implications of the Rumsfeld transformation.

"Rumsfeld has finally been forced to go after weapons programs for the same reason Willy Sutton robbed banks -- because that's where the remaining money is," Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an interview. "For the most part, he's cutting sacred cows among the 'legacy' programs, like fighter aircraft and ships, and protecting more-novel programs like unmanned aerial vehicles, space communications, and Army modularity. In that sense, the direction outlined is transformational."

The fact that Pentagon civilians leaked the proposed cuts even before the quadrennial review process began, Krepinevich said, could signal that after four years in office, the Rumsfeld team is now confident of its transformational direction and is poised to implement profound change through major program cuts and shifts that will affect the military for decades. "The global war on terror has also given [Rumsfeld] enormous leverage," Krepinevich said. "He's dealing with a largely compliant Republican Congress. Finally, budget pressures are forcing tough decisions on weapons programs that probably should have been made earlier, but the political environment was not conducive."

The Pentagon's proposed spending cuts reveal just how dramatically the grounds for debate have shifted onto turf favorable to transformation advocates. Reversing the stated wishes of Air Force leaders, the Pentagon targeted the service's top-priority F/A-22 fighter plane, reducing the planned buy from 381 to just 180 aircraft and cutting $10.5 billion from the program. Such a cut could throw the Air Force's tactical-aviation program into turmoil, raising questions of how the service can replace a rapidly aging fleet of 1970s- and 1980s-era F-15 fighters. Transformation advocates have long argued, however, that the Air Force is overinvested in tactical fighter wings that lack the range and flexibility to operate in regions without forward U.S. air bases.

The Navy would fare no better under the proposed plan, losing an aircraft carrier to early retirement -- thus shrinking the carrier fleet from 12 to 11 -- and seeing its proposed purchases of Virginia-class submarines and next-generation DD(X) destroyers cut to the tune of $7.9 billion. According to press reports, Navy planners are likely to go even further in the quadrennial review, proposing a reduction in the carrier fleet -- the onetime queens of the blue-water chessboard -- to 10, or even nine, flattops. Transformation advocates have argued that the carriers are too vulnerable, and that the Navy relies too heavily on them as the centerpiece of its forward-presence mission and wartime surge capability.

Meanwhile, under Wolfowitz's memo, the Army's plan to shift from a structure based on large divisions to one based on modular and smaller brigade combat teams -- the linchpin of its transformation effort -- would be boosted by $25 billion over the next six years. That largely answers criticisms from transformation advocates that Army divisions are too heavy and slow to deploy, given the uncertain nature of new and often unconventional threats.

"The general philosophical shift you see in PDB 753 and the Pentagon's transformation efforts is from a military that is overinvested in dealing with conventional threats and underinvested in preparing for unconventional threats," said Michele Flournoy, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Clinton Pentagon. Such an approach will inevitably hit the conventional forces of the Air Force and Navy hardest, she says.

In part, the proposed changes attempt to make a "transformational" virtue out of the necessity of shifting funds and priorities to Army forces that are bearing the brunt of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dov Zakheim, who retired last year as the Pentagon's comptroller and chief numbers cruncher, says that the pressures that federal deficits are exerting on Defense budgets are compounded by the fact that the Defense Department will spend roughly $12 billion more in Iraq this year than officials anticipated just one year ago. The White House indicated this week that it will request an $80 billion supplemental funding bill to cover the costs of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even given that infusion of money, the strains of those two wars have largely taken off the table any cuts to the personnel or operations- and-maintenance accounts, two traditional "bill payers" in times of austerity.

"With the Army totally enmeshed in Iraq, and those accounts off the table, that forces budget-cutters to look at Air Force and Navy acquisition programs, which is what they clearly did," Zakheim said, speaking at a recent forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Even given an increasingly tight budget environment, however, Zakheim believes that the cuts faithfully reflect Rumsfeld's transformation priorities.

The transformation programs "have not only been funded, but in many cases, boosted," Zakheim said. Those programs include unmanned aerial vehicles such as Global Hawk; the Army's lighter, more-mobile Stryker brigades; the airborne laser; space-based radar; the military's global information grid; the conversion of Trident nuclear-missile submarines to cruise-missile platforms; and the Pentagon's Joint Readiness Training Center. "All of those programs are ongoing, and they are changing the way the U.S. military trains, equips, and fights -- big-time."

What is missing from the Pentagon's transformation initiative, critics contend, is a full and open debate about the risks versus rewards inherent in such a radical restructuring. Partly, that is because the Republican-controlled Congress has shown little inclination to exercise strict oversight of the Defense Department during a time of war.

For their part, OSD officials have persistently pushed the U.S. military down the path toward supposed "transformation" -- without describing what the ultimate "Promised Land" will look like.

"I think OSD has been very relaxed about telling people where transformation is headed, because it is convenient for them not to be tied down to details that could later be used to hold them accountable. But that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Congress to conduct meaningful oversight," said Ronald O'Rourke, a longtime naval expert at the Congressional Research Service. From an analysis of PBD 753 and Navy shipbuilding schedules, O'Rourke believes that one not-insignificant detail implied in current plans is that a "transformed" Navy is likely to be the smallest naval force the United States has relied upon in modern times.

"The proposed reductions in Navy shipbuilding begin to make apparent a problem that has been lurking in the wings for some time," O'Rourke said. "Transformation is leading us toward a U.S. Navy that, as measured by ships and force structure, will be smaller than any in our past, and perhaps as small as 100 surface-combatant ships. And because of a lack of detail coming from the Pentagon or the Navy, Congress right now is in no position to say whether such a fleet is adequate."

Other critics fault the logic of reducing the Air Force's proposed buy of F/A-22s to save $10.5 billion, given that the service has already invested $40 billion in research and development on the aircraft. If the cut stands, that decision also raises questions on how the Air Force can replace its aging F-15s and keep a state-of-the-art industrial base warm until the Joint Strike Fighter begins to come on line in 2013.

"What most concerns me about the proposed budget cuts and Rumsfeld's transformation initiative is that they are driven by an ideology that has proven itself out of sync with the actual experiences of the past four years," said Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting firm. "At first, OSD suggested that we could transform the military because of a 'strategic pause' that failed to materialize. They initially wanted to cut the size of the Army, before discovering that it was too small for Iraq. They failed to anticipate the 9/11 attacks and the Iraqi insurgency. They've invested a ton of money in space-based sensors when airborne sensors could accomplish the same mission at a fraction of the cost. So the Rumsfeld ideology has not proven to be a good predictor of the future, and I worry that the end state of transformation will be a U.S. military that has a very old arsenal, and very high personnel costs."