Home » Budget Industry » Think Tank Panel Tells House U.S. Military Faces More Challenges, Suggests Pentagon Spending Reforms

Think Tank Panel Tells House U.S. Military Faces More Challenges, Suggests Pentagon Spending Reforms


When a quartet of defense budget experts was asked how it would spend the Pentagon’s money now versus last year, they all recognized that “creeping aggression” in Eastern Europe, across the Middle East and into the waters off China is causing them to re-evaluate their positions.

“Doing more with less is not sustainable over the long term,” Ryan Crotty, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on Wednesday.

Among his team’s recommendations a year ago was removing a carrier from the Pacific.

As Thomas Donnelly, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute said, “there is no theater, no domain of warfare where the United States is not being challenged.”

Jim Thomas, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, noted “subconventional threats” from undeclared forces aiding Russian separatists in Ukraine, the Iranian Quds force operations in Iraq and Syria and forceful Chinese coast guard patrols in the Pacific highlight “weak front-line states” struggling to counter those growing regional threats.

To aid those states, Thomas said, American “Special Operations Forces have a specially important role to play” and the United States should be providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to those allies and partners.

Deterrence is not enough, Donnelly said. Dissuading potential enemies from acting through the knowledge that the United States would respond is critical.

“We already have regrets about readiness,” Thomas said and the others agreed.

What the four think-tank experts and Todd Harrison, also from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, were sharing with the committee were the conclusions they reached in an exercise in which they used the Budget Control Act of 2011’s spending caps in one scenario and the slightly higher caps included in the administration’s budget submission last year.

Nora Bensahel, then with the Center for New American Security and now a professor at American University, said, “DOD is not investing in the right things for the future,” such as space and cyber. The four teams agreed on that conclusion, as they had in the first exercise the year before.

Even with cuts in service and civilian personnel, a new round of base closures and accepting the recommendations of a special panel on overhauling military compensation, she added, “we had to cut readiness.”

Donnelly, a former committee staff member, said, “There was no space for strategy” when budgets were so constrained in both scenarios. “We refused to rule out unpopular forms of warfare,” counterinsurgency operations, “or places, the Middle East” in considering national security.

He estimated that it would take $780 billion above projected defense spending to “repair what is broken to fight against another day.” Even with that increase, defense spending would still be below 2011 levels and remain less than 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

When asked about potential savings in weapons systems, Bensahel said, “The F-35 is eating everything else in the [acquisition] budget” and recommended cuts in the number of aircraft the services would buy. For the Navy and Marine Corps, she added, her team recommended cutting cruisers, some destroyers and an aircraft carrier.

Donnelly warned that if the F-35 buy was severely cut back it would throw into question the Navy’s plans to build the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers and new amphibious assault ships, both designed to handle that aircraft.

He said the Navy’s assumptions in the 1990s to build the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the Littoral Combat Ship proved wrong. In the changing threat environment of the 21st century, these ships could not operate close to shore safely.

In answer to a later question Donnelly said, it will “take a long time from the Navy to recover from that mistake.” He added the other services had similar examples of investing in systems that did not meet changed threats.

“Affordability is a choice” in deciding which weapons systems—conventional and nuclear—to pursue, Harrison said. On the nuclear triad, “the time to look at it is between now and the end of the decade.” He added that in the mid-2020s a number of conventional systems—the F-35, a new long-range bomber, a new tanker and an Air Force trainer—will be in or entering full production. This coincides with the Navy’s schedule for the Ohio-class replacement ballistic-missile submarine to enter production.

Bensahel reminded the committee that to keep in mind that wars “do not necessarily look like Afghanistan and Iraq” [protracted ground combat] when it is setting defense priorities for the future.

While not wanting to peg defense spending to a given percentage of Gross Domestic Product, Harrison said, “We need to have a debate on what we want our military to do” and how to pay for it.

“We need to get our fiscal house in order” to provide security for future generations, Thomas said.

  • Steve Skubinna

    The real mistake regarding the Zumwalts was the decision to continue with three ships, which ensures that one will not be where you need it when you need it. And with the announcement that the third will test the railgun that means two operational assets and one experimental platform so it’s even worse.

    While I am generally not a fan of shifting funds from the Navy to another service, the money would have been better spent cancelling the Zumwalt and reopening the F-22 production line. God help the F-35 squadrons if they have to operate where we don’t have air superiority, and the F-22 was supposed to provide that.

    Right now the single most versatile platform the USN has are the CVNs which can operate across the spectrum of warfare. Probably the best bet is to do whatever we can to maximize those assets and their availability.

  • Ctrot

    “We need to get our fiscal house in order”

    Rein in the welfare state, it’s the only way.

    • Steve Skubinna

      Dream on. You’re not wrong, but it’s not likely to happen. Take a look at the sad state of they Royal Navy. There’s our own future.

      Let’s just hope that whoever supplants us as the world’s superpower, Russia or China most likely, treads softly. The welfare states of the EU should be getting nervous at the impending end of the Pax Americana.

  • Taxpayer71

    Mr Donnelly argues that in the changing threat environment of the 21st century, LCS and DDG1000 “could not operate close to shore safely”. Taking this point to its logical conclusion, no US Navy surface ships could operate close to shore “safely”. Therefore amphibious operations by the US Navy and USMC could not be conducted “safely”. One might suggest the military is intended to go in harms way and that warfare by its nature involves risk. Perhaps Mr. Donnelly needs to offer a more nuanced explanation of his point. ,

    • Steve Skubinna

      Yes, I thought the same thing but let it slide. What ship can operate close to shore “safely?” How safe do you want? I agree that the LCS is overpriced and underperforming, but that Bofors 57mm is a very good gun, at least as good as or better than anything it will face. The 30mm I don’t know enough about. And if we’re expecting individual ships to fight close inshore than maybe we’re getting even stupider than I fear.

      What’s the threat? How many LCSs will be facing it? You mean they won’t have any support from offshore, no gunfire and missile support from a DDG or CG, no tactical aircraft providing cover, no E-3 or P-8 orbiting overhead? How is it supposed to operate?

      Sadly I have a bad feeling that nobody who should be is asking those questions and looking at the possible threats. We’re just focused on providing commands at sea for the Captains and Commanders Union, and looking at the next sexy big ticket procurement program.

  • Quackers

    At least some group are thinking (I hope no gold on sleeve). One carrier at least. George Washington????

  • James B.

    “Donnelly warned that if the F-35 buy was severely cut back it would throw into question the Navy’s plans to build the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers and new amphibious assault ships, both designed to handle that aircraft.”

    If we cut the JSF, we might actually be able to afford Ford-class carriers and America-class LHAs, and we’ll find helos and Super Hornets to fly off them. If we don’t cut the JSF, we’ll blow our ship budget buying junk aircraft.