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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.