More than the usual number of reporters descended on the Pentagon January 5, hopeful of learning how, specifically, the Department of Defense will cull billions of dollars from its budget over the next decade. Would the troubled F-35 program be further restructured or reduced? Would the V-22 get clipped?
The answers to these and other program questions were not answered that day, as the Pentagon rolled out a new vision statement, or “strategic guidance,” for the 21st century that promised austerity but said next to nothing about procurement.
Broad strokes of the policy were revealed in The Washington Post that morning, even before the press briefing featuring President Barack Obama, on a rare visit from across the Potomac. The U.S. military will emphasize Asia in its future planning, and move away from large-scale wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, the newspaper reported. The specifics of $487 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years required by the Budget Control Act of last August, and some $500 billion more if automatic cuts are triggered through a “sequestration” process, will “trickle out” with submission of the President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget proposal in early February.
That Obama filed into the Pentagon briefing room with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, civilian service secretaries, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top officials sent a clear message to Congress that he and the military establishment are unified on the strategy and the planned spending cuts under the Budget Control Act. Less clear is where Obama will fall on sequestration cuts the Pentagon and aerospace industry have described as catastrophic. After a brief address, he departed without taking questions.
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, further annunciated the strategy. The U.S. military will “rebalance” its global posture to emphasize the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, areas where the greatest future challenges are anticipated. The Army and the Marine Corps will be reduced, and no longer sized to support large-scale, long-term ground wars. As the overall defense budget is reduced, certain areas will be protected: special forces, unmanned systems, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, space and cyberspace. The strategy document specifically mentions development of a new stealth bomber.
Entwined in the strategy is the concept of “reversibility,” or the ability to restore a larger force if necessary. The concept applies as well to the defense industrial base, officials said. “Reversibility just means that as we make these momentous changes, these $487 billion worth of changes, they’re causing us of necessity to have to stop certain things, pause certain things, slow down certain things,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. “In each case, to the extent we can do so, we want to preserve the ability to change course. … As we make program changes, we want to make sure that 10 years, 15 years from now we still have an industrial base that supports our key weapons systems even if we were not able to buy in those areas at the rates or in the volume that we had planned before we were handed this $487 billion cut.”
Frank Kendall, acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, hosted a conference call to explain the strategy to industry representatives January 6. What is industry’s understanding of reversibility?
“The understanding that I have, based on the discussion with the Pentagon, is that it’s primarily focused around the fact that the joint military force will be smaller than it is [now],” said Fred Downey, Aerospace Industries Association vice president of national security. “A smaller force will have fewer weapons, and with the strategy shift a somewhat different mix of those weapons. If a national security requirement pops up, then the glidepath to a smaller force would have to stop or reverse. Industry would presumably be asked to ‘surge’ to provide the equipment that it wasn’t providing.”
Downey said it would be easier to surge equipment than to restart a terminated program. “You’ve been building a widget for 100 years,” he said, by way of example. “You have institutional knowledge and memory on it; you have people qualified for it; you have factories and equipment to do it. It’s a pretty big and expensive proposition, and all of a sudden the Pentagon says, ‘Starting now, we’re going to taper off until we’re not doing this widget anymore.’ The first impact would be industry would lay off or fire the people who do that. The facilities where it’s done would become excess. [Companies] would probably either convert those [facilities] to other uses or divest them altogether, and all of the tooling that went into it would either be warehoused or sold off.”
The concept of reversibility will likely continue to raise troubling questions. “It’s not clear to me that we understand all of the single points of failure,” Downey said. “For example, would it mean that a supplier of a particular material would go out of business entirely? If that were the only provider, there would be no source. I don’t know that we understand what all of those impacts are at this point.”