Trade-offs Loom in Modern Force

kpeters@govexec.com

For the third time in five years, the Defense Department is attempting to redefine itself in the aftermath of the Cold War. The most recent effort, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, "will be nothing less than a total reassessment of America's defense strategy, force structure, military modernization programs and defense infrastructure," according to Deputy Defense Secretary John White.

Let's hope he's right. While the two previous efforts-former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell's "base force" proposal in 1992 and the late Defense Secretary Les Aspin's Bottom-Up Review in 1993-resulted in budget and personnel cuts of more than 30 percent from the military's Cold War size, they did little to significantly alter U.S. military strategy and planning. Given budget pressures and the fact that the United States is the sole superpower, anything less than the comprehensive review promised by Defense leaders will be an affront to American taxpayers, who can expect to spend $260 billion on defense every year for the foreseeable future.

The fundamental problem facing Defense planners as they put the finishing touches on the QDR before it is delivered to Congress later this month, is how to live within that budget. The department simply cannot afford to operate at its current size and buy the weapons it plans to buy over the next several years.

The QDR is intended to provide a blueprint for U.S. security strategy well into the next century. It will examine every aspect of the defense program, White says. "Everything is on the table. We are not holding sacrosanct any particular end strength, any particular platform size, any particular structure."

If that is true-there are plenty of skeptics inside and outside the Pentagon who wonder-the stakes are high. A major shift in strategy will affect billions of dollars in weapons systems already planned and thousands of jobs.

If the QDR is honest, it will force the Defense Department to make trade-offs between personnel, readiness, procurement and modernization. U.S. strategic plans currently call for the military to be able to fight and win two wars, such as one in the Persian Gulf and one in Korea, nearly simultaneously. However, it is widely believed at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill that the military has already been cut too deeply to be able to do this efficiently. At the same time, current force modernization programs may be underfunded by as much as $100 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"Trade-offs are unavoidable," said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, during testimony earlier this year. Krepinevich was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the future of tactical aviation.

"The focus of our current modernization program-the F-22, F/A-18E/F, and Joint Strike Fighter aircraft-seems to presume that the long-term future will resemble the recent past; i.e. that an adequate forward-basing structure will exist in future contingencies, that our tactical air forces will be accorded access (indeed, early access) by prospective host nations in the theater of operations, and that these bases will remain sanctuaries from enemy attack. It also seems to assume that our carriers, operating close to the shore, will remain very difficult to detect and engage.

"Before we procure over 4,000 tactical aircraft at a cost that will likely exceed $300 billion-aircraft that are intended to operate well into the new century-we need to know how our tactical air forces, thus modernized, will meet what are likely to be the very different challenges they will confront [in] 2015 and 2020, as well as the more familiar challenges of today," Krepinevich said.

Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of the House National Security Committee in March the Pentagon may scale back plans for modernizing fighters or may eliminate one program altogether, although it was clear Ralston and others at the Pentagon would be reluctant to do so.

The fate of the QDR's recommendations is uncertain. A nine-member National Defense Panel, which includes Krepinevich, will assess the QDR and provide its own recommendations at the end of the year. Ultimately, Congress will decide whether to accept and how to implement the recommendations.

Even if everything is on the table at the Pentagon, including the three fighter aircraft programs, there is no guarantee everything will remain on the table when Congress reviews the QDR. And defense companies are taking no chances. An analysis of defense-industry political action committee campaign contributions by Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson showed arms manufacturers spent millions supporting key legislators in both the House and the Senate during the 1995-96 election cycle.

And Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's evolving sentiments on the Joint Strike Fighter program demonstrate how difficult it could be to sell any major shift in Defense Department priorities on Capitol Hill. When St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas was in the running for the Joint Strike Fighter, the Missouri Democrat was all for the program, but when the company based in his home state was eliminated from the bidding, he suddenly began questioning the program, prompting outrage from industry officials at Seattle-based Boeing Co.

Hopefully, the QDR that is presented to Congress later this month will reflect the thoughts of more disinterested parties.

Otherwise, as Krepinevich noted in his testimony, the price will be dear: "We confront this era of transformational change, both geopolitical and military-technical, within an environment of declining resources for defense. Consequently, there is the risk that if the wrong transformation path is chosen (or if no attempt is made at transformation), we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to buy our way out of our mistakes."

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