Shanahan: Next Pentagon Budget May Trade New Weapons Development for Readiness

October 26, 2018 6:58 PM
The X-51A Waverider, shown here under the wing of a B-52 Stratobomber is set to demonstrate hypersonic flight. US Air Force Graphic

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Fiscal Year 2020 budget may slow down modernization efforts and research into next-generation weapons, like hypersonic missiles, but will still invest in growing the military force and boosting readiness for aircraft such as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, the deputy secretary of defense told reporters today.

Patrick Shanahan said the Office of Budget and Management told the Pentagon last week to prepare a $700-billion national security budget for FY 2020, whereas the Defense Department had previously been given a $733-billion topline.

As a result, Pentagon comptroller David Norquist “is building two budgets” even as the services are moving forward with a single budget request to submit to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“So imagine we’ve been going through this very disciplined process for the whole year to build a budget that’s $733 billion, and then last week we were directed, build us a $700-billion budget. So we are not going to reverse course on all that planning; we will build two budgets,” Shanahan said while speaking at the Military Reporters and Editors annual conference today.
“And the way we think about those two budgets and the approach, there are certain things that we can’t change. There are just near-term costs we are going to expend in the next year that are on contract or are for all intents and purposes fixed. But there are other investments we can make in science and technology and procurement, we have knobs we can turn in terms of the timing. The exercise that we’re going through is, there’s prioritization we can make. So for example, this is probably a good way to think about it: we have a number of options going on with hypersonic missiles. And these projects, we can choose either to do them or to defer them.”

The more constrained $700-billion budget does not just apply the lower topline to FY 2020, but also to the whole five-year future years defense program. Because the topline doesn’t immediate bounce back up, investment in hypersonics and other technologies “comes down to a judgment call, how fast we modernize – that’s probably going to be the biggest knob we have to turn” to adjust to a lower topline, if that spending level comes to fruition.

The National Defense Strategy that was released at the beginning of this year highlighted the importance of focusing on competition against near-peer adversaries, which lent itself to initial talks of capability increases. However, Shanahan said these capability investments may be slowed due to budget cuts.

Capacity, on the other hand, is still a priority for the Pentagon, the deputy secretary said.

For the Navy specifically, Shanahan said DoD still supports a 355-ship Navy, and while the mix of those ships is important and still “pre-decisional,” what is certain is that “we want more, not less. We think in this budget quantity is very important. Less exquisite, higher quantities. Capacity – we’ve gone through the [budget] exercises and one of the first things we did when the services sent in their [five-year budget plans] was, are we getting smaller or bigger? Is the quantity going up or down? And fundamentally we think the quantity should be going up.”

Additionally, as a way to boost capacity in the short-term, Shanahan said the department is focused on boosting readiness for its Super Hornets in particular.

“When I think about the Navy, it’s, how do we get more F-18s flying? There’s a lot of them that sit on the ground, plus we already have them – so there’s a component of this that, with the assets we already have, this is where we can put a lot of energy into readiness, and we’re very thankful for the money that Congress has provided us,” he said.

Even if the smaller $700-billion budget comes to pass, Shanahan assured DoD is committed to funding the depot maintenance and parts needed to get more fighters flying.

Citing a recent memo from Defense Secretary James Mattis, he summarized the memo as, “giddyup, let’s move out on achieving more capability sooner. And we can do that, we’re very committed to getting a lot more F-18s flying.”

Speaking at the same event, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford addressed the long-term modernization plans. He said there’s a “bow wave” of modernization needs that the Pentagon began trying to address seriously in its FY 2017 and 2018 budgets, but given that the Budget Control Act is still looming over the budget process, Dunford acknowledged that funds to research and develop future systems will be limited.

Defense Patrick M. Shanahan. DoD Photo

In the past two years, the department went all in on research into cyber, space, ballistic missile defense, electromagnetic spectrum capabilities and modernization of the nuclear enterprise.

“Those were all areas that we knew we were lagging in modernization, and there was very little danger of us over-investing in those areas relative to the challenges we have. But as we look forward … we’re going to have to actually appreciate the outcome of a campaign of investments in specific capability areas. How do you do that? You do that by a much more robust exercise, experimentation and wargaming effort than we’ve had in the past.”

The Pentagon is currently taking the National Defense Strategy and creating an operational concept for employment of the joint force that informs how the joint force will be deployed globally to meet national priorities. That operational concept is in its final stages of being written now, and once it is finalized military leaders can then write a strategy-based series of exercises, experimentation and wargames that purposefully lead to the ability to decide what technologies will most give U.S. forces an advantage on the battlefield.

By 2021 or 2021, Dunford said, there should be enough information to have informed answers when budgets are inevitably short and the question arises, “how are we going to make the choice between a dollar in cyber, a dollar in resiliency for space, a dollar in the electromagnetic spectrum, increasing our submarines’ ability to operate in it; how are we going to make those decisions?”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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