What a Smaller Defense Budget Looks Like

Here's what the military might look like in an age of austerity.

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An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Kestrels of Strike Fighter Squadron 137 approaches the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

Several weeks ago, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments held a "Strategic Choices Exercise Outbrief" in Washington, D.C. This event brought together teams of experts from not only their shop but also the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for a New American Strategy.

Each team was asked to develop a defense strategy and rebalance DoD's portfolio of capabilities in a reduced budget environment. Using CSBA's rebalancing tool and methodology, the teams chose from several hundred pre-costed options to add or cut from the projected defense program over the next ten years, including major units of force structure, end strength, bases, readiness, civilian personnel, weapon systems and modernization programs. 

Each team had to weigh its decisions within the context of both Budget Control Act-level cuts in defense spending and a lower reduction of half the BCA cut. Each team's cuts and adds had to be consistent with the budget-level options considered by the Strategic Choices and Management Review that the Pentagon is wrapping up this week. The exercise was timed to inform the thinking on the way defense resources are allocated in light of declining budgets.

Frank Hoffman (full disclosure: a friend of this blogger's) was kind enough to develop the chart below of the various options that came out of this project. (The highlighted yellow boxes denote the outlier positions of the budgetary and strategy positions as Hoffman saw them.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]


The first column refers to a strategy paper developed by the National Defense University's Strategy Study Group and published by FPRI. Their group did not set up their strategy and capabilities under the same assumptions as the CSBA study, but some of their initial calls are to:

  • Develop new concepts of integrated civilian power across domains to achieve U.S. objectives and reflect U.S. presence in key regions.
  • Work with other agencies to help sustain and expand investment and a more coordinated interagency process on a key nontraditional security risk, such as biological pathogens.
  • Develop a plan to transform the military personnel system to promote creative and innovative career paths, sensible assignment patterns, and related goals.
  • Propose an initiative designed to symbolize a commitment to multilateral efforts, promotion of stability and crisis management; one example would be an open-access ISR and awareness network in the Pacific.
  • Develop an elaborated concept for timely, long-range strike across domains to bolster global deterrent and warfighting capacity when local deployments may shrink.
  • Reverse recent cuts in military education, research and exchange programs to promote critical thinking leaders across the national security enterprise.
  • Request a plan for the long-term collaborative enhancement of defensive area denial capabilities in the hands of allies and partners, such as an integrated BMD network in Asia.
  • Request a plan for increasing the emphasis on basic and applied research within Defense RDT&E as opposed to systems development.
  • Order the Army to go back to the drawing board on its plans for future combat vehicles.
  • Order the Navy to plan for a future fleet of similar overall size, but based on a more comprehensive power projection concept that relies less on large-deck carriers and restricts or eliminates further purchase of the Littoral Combat Ship.
  • Order the Air Force to develop a revised modernization plan using a modest purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as a "wedge" capability while continuing to modernize with additional purchases of current generation strike aircraft.
  • [Read the U.S. News Debate: Should China Be Considered America's Number One Adversary.]

    The big takeaway from these various studies is to highlight what less defense spending might look like in terms of U.S. military capabilities. Remarkably, the only area where there were no outliers was in the agreement that the number of intercontinental ballistic missile wings should be reduced and that stealthy bombers should be procured. It will be interesting to see how these views square with the Pentagon's awaited Strategy Choices and Management Review.

    Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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