Washington Watch

June 1, 2009

“The President’s Budget”

It didn’t take long for the somber term “Black Monday” to spring into general usage. The words referred to Monday, April 6, the day Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates drew himself up and announced his plans to terminate or postpone the bulk of USAF’s major modernization programs.

Gates’ decisions were taken within the context of deep reductions in the proposed Fiscal 2010 defense budget, which had not yet been finalized. He characterized the moves as his “recommendations” to President Obama, but the act of revealing such advice publicly and in advance was unprecedented.

Normally, DOD budget announcements are tightly held until they have the President’s imprimatur, which is why the resulting document is always called “the President’s Budget.”

Gates said the early move was to inform Congress of his thinking since the budget cycle was delayed under the new Administration. Ordinarily delivered to Congress by late January, this budget reached Capitol Hill May 7.

Gates acknowledged imposing strict rules on top service leaders during budget deliberations, requiring signed oaths that they would not disclose what was being discussed to underlings, Congress, the press, or each other. Gates claimed that the press conference announcing his decisions was intended to head off leaks and speculation before the budget was actually submitted to Congress.

Despite his characterization of the package as “recommendations,” the decisions were viewed as faits accompli and were presumed to have Obama’s support.

The Air Force took the deepest cut. Gates terminated production of the F-22 fighter at 187 aircraft and production of the C-17 airlifter at 205 aircraft. He halted the CSAR-X combat search and rescue helicopter program (which was on the verge of a contract award). He closed down the Transformational Satellite Communications System program, postponed the start of the 2018 bomber (mandated in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review) and shifted the Airborne Laser from a preproduction effort to a research-only project.

Gates also announced the sudden retirement from the Air Force inventory of 250 fighters—more than three wings’ worth—in Fiscal Year 2010. It had been previously suggested that this drawdown would be phased in over five years.

With regard to the F-22 and C-17 program, Gates argued that his decision to end production was not a cut but “completing” those programs. He noted that the Pentagon capped F-22 production at 183 in 2004, and the additional four airplanes are attrition replacements. Although a new Mobility Capability Study has not yet been completed, Gates said that 205 C-17s will be “sufficient” given the mix of other strategic and tactical airlifters available.

Gates approved only two high-profile aircraft modernization programs: the F-35 fighter and the KC-X tanker. Although he asserted that he would sharply boost and accelerate the F-35 to make up for the termination of the F-22, the newer program was already slated to see an uptick in production in Fiscal 2010. Gates pledged an accelerated F-35 test program.

He also promised that the KC-X tanker, which he ordered terminated last fall because of its protest-afflicted history, would get under way again this summer. He argued against splitting the buy between two manufacturers, and later said he would lay his body “across the tracks” to prevent such an arrangement, due to its cost.

As for the CSAR-X, Gates expressed a preference for a “joint” solution to the mission, arguing that he’s not sure there needs to be a dedicated rescue mission in a single service.

Fuzzy Math on F-22s

Gates’ termination of the F-22 at 187 aircraft produced shock and dismay among the program’s supporters, both in academia and Congress. The way it was explained implied that there was a strong difference of opinion between the service and the defense chief.

In February, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz stated publicly that a larger number was in the offing—he later acknowledged he had sought production of an additional 60 fighters. He further stated that the new force number—243 F-22s—was supported by months of deep analysis that would “stand up to scrutiny.”

On Black Monday, however, Gates blandly reported that the Air Force hadn’t asked for more than 187 aircraft, saying “the military advice that I got” was that 187 was enough. He also indicated that his stop-the-F-22 decision wasn’t a budget maneuver, and that he would have made the same choice even if there had been plenty of money available.

When asked about the Air Force’s analysis indicating 60 more F-22s were needed, Gates said that 187 had been “their advice as well.”

To answer the obvious discrepancy, Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley penned an April 13 editorial for the Washington Post. They explained that the service had concluded that 243 F-22s would be a “moderate risk force” (381 would have been a low-risk force). However, they explained that since the analysis, the Pentagon was “revisiting the scenarios on which the Air Force based its assessment,” particularly the number of simultaneous major combat operations the US might need to fight. In the grand scheme of other budget priorities, Schwartz and Donley wrote, “we do not recommend that F-22s be included in the Fiscal 2010 defense budget. … The time has come to move on.”

Gates undercut himself on the competitive threat the F-22 will have to counter, however, revealing that foreign versions of the fifth generation fighter will appear sooner than previously thought. In his budget cut announcements, he decried a military desire to “run up the score” in areas of military technology where the US is already dominant.

“Our conventional modernization goals should be tied to the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries, not by what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary given unlimited time and resources,” Gates said.

However, in a Pentagon press conference the next day, he asserted that “the intelligence that I’ve gotten indicates” that initial operational capability for a Russian fifth generation fighter “would be about 2016, and in China would be about 2020.”

Speaking to the National Aeronautic Association in April, Schwartz acknowledged that “243 is the military requirement” for the F-22. For all that, however, he said he had concluded that “more F-22s are unaffordable in the context of other things we must do.” Asked if 187 represents a “high risk” fleet—given that 381 was deemed low risk and 243 a moderate risk—Schwartz declined to comment further.

At an April 23 Center for Strategic and International Studies seminar on the actual need for F-22s, panelists concluded that Gates’ decision to halt the F-22 at 187 aircraft wasn’t backed up by any discernible analysis. Gen. Gregory S. Martin (Ret.), former head of Air Force Materiel Command and US Air Forces in Europe, said Gates’ number was “driven by a budget drill.” Adm. John B. Nathman (Ret.), former vice chief of naval operations, said that the lack of a “strategic model … [was] one of the key gaps” in justifying Gates’ Raptor numbers, and the termination will serve to erode the nation’s aviation industrial base. Rebecca Grant, head of the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, called the 187 figure “a made-up number” that had no basis in Air Force calculations.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), an F-22 critic, told the symposium that even he was dismayed that “the strategic template for ‘why’ was missing” from the April 6 budget announcements.

During an April 21 quarterly conference call with defense reporters, Lockheed Martin Chief Financial Officer Bruce L. Tanner said that the company would stop all lobbying to keep the F-22 line going, saying that Gates and the Air Force “are all completely aligned on this matter from top to bottom.”

At a Brookings Institution symposium on irregular warfare on April 24, Schwartz was asked if he thought there was “proper strategic underpinning” to Gates’ cuts. Schwartz replied that he thinks they “were thought through” at Gates’ level, and that “the truth of the matter is … we have to contain the infinite appetite” for greater capability.

However, Schwartz said the Air Force won’t “sit still” and forgo arguing “our case or for what we think the joint team needs from its Air Force” in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review.

“We will argue … strenuously; we will make the best possible case we can,” he said.

John Hamre Takes Exception

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ rash of big-ticket program terminations proved to be wildly popular among those who generally consider defense spending to be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Still, there are at least a few who worry about letting one man’s gut instinct take the place of reasoned strategy, analysis, and old-fashioned debate.

One who issues such a warning is John J. Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Hamre is a former deputy secretary of defense with long and deep ties to the defense establishment in Congress. Hamre, who commands respect on both sides of the political aisle, cautioned that the media and the nation as a whole shouldn’t simply accept Gates’ pronouncements as the last word on major weapon systems. The debate should just be beginning, he insisted.

“I’m a huge admirer of Secretary Gates,” said Hamre at an April 23 CSIS seminar on tactical air issues. “I really do think he’s done a superb job.” However, Hamre said, “what’s emerging in Washington” is a media climate that cheers anyone in the Pentagon who suggests cutting defense.

“The media conclude, ‘Finally, somebody in DOD is being honest. … Finally, they’re telling the truth.’”

However, Hamre said this bandwagon effect only serves to stifle the real issues of long-term security that have to be addressed. He expressed his worry that “anyone who questions [Gates] is somehow parochial and self-serving, [that] there isn’t a wider interest to be debated.”

He said the narrative is “evolving into a ‘virtuous Secretary of Defense who is now being confronted by venal politics.’”

Hamre—certainly near the top of the short list of Democratic figures who could have filled the Defense Secretary job had President Obama not made the bipartisan gesture of retaining Gates—said that Gates did right by trying to make “a rational set of choices about how we should move forward. It’s exactly what you want in your Secretary of Defense.”

Hamre said, “He’s thought his way through it, and now we, … we Americans, we citizens, … have to think our way through it.”

He noted that many of the decisions Gates has aired “are going to affect the shape of our capabilities for the next 25 years,” just as “we are … the beneficiaries of decisions made about 20 years ago that reflect what we have today.” The Pentagon’s budget and plans, he noted, have “a very long-range time horizon. You have to think in long cycles in this business.”