Washington Watch

Dec. 1, 2007

The Morning After

It’s time for the military services to think hard about what they will look like once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, but they shouldn’t count on new money to help them attain their 21st century visions, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed in October.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, in a broad, six-page memo outlining his planning guidance to the services for 2007-08, said the wars at hand must of course take priority. However, he suggested that longer-term thinking has been neglected, and that the armed forces must widen their view to ensure they can still fight all kinds of conflicts, not just insurgencies.

“We must be ready for who—and what—comes after,” Mullen wrote.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Mullen got the job because, in part, when asked what worried him most about US military posture, Mullen’s answer was, “The Army.” Gates said the remark underscored Mullen’s pragmatism, broad view of national defense, and ability to think across service lines.

Mullen told the services to present him with “reset” plans that honestly spell out the capabilities needed to cover the full spectrum of threats, but ask only for those capabilities they absolutely need. In making such judgments, they should be willing to take more risk, he said. He also warned that they will have to execute these plans “without substantial support from supplemental funding,” especially since the reset will take place during a change of Presidential administrations, with attending “potential fiscal constraints.”

Priorities will be “strategy-driven,” Mullen said, and he called for new strategies to be drafted which dispense utterly with the notion that any service can function without the others, and recognize that in future conflicts, the US will usually act as part of a coalition.

“Nobody goes it alone today,” Mullen declared. Future forces will be “complementary [and] jointly interdependent.”

The first priority for “what comes after” Iraq and Afghanistan is to draw up a new Middle East strategy aimed at achieving regional stability, Mullen said. The new vision is to help the US cope with “state and nonstate actors” working to “foment instability.” He noted an “increasingly hostile” Iran, the “rise of radical jihadists,” a resurgent al Qaeda, and smoldering problems having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Sunni-Shiite violence as all having a direct bearing on the security of the US.

The second priority will be to “reset, reconstitute, and revitalize our armed forces, particularly the ground forces,” Mullen wrote. At the same time, the military must recognize that it faces “new asymmetrical threats [that] call for different kinds” of specialists, systems, and strategies.

“We need to be smarter, lighter, more agile, and more lethal,” Mullen said. The force must be “correctly shaped,” he said.

A top Pentagon official said the guidance means that if a service’s requested system or unit “isn’t tied to a war plan, you won’t get it.” The official also said that Mullen’s directives mean funding will be extremely limited for equipment and forces that are called on only rarely or are unlikely to be used at all. There will be depth of forces “only where depth is needed, and that will be a difficult call for some,” the official said.

Mullen’s third priority will be to “properly balance global strategic risk,” which he explained meant a rethinking of America’s military capabilities with an eye toward getting ahead of emerging threats.

It will be “hard to predict” the threats that will face the US going forward, but he specifically noted the rising threat of cyber warfare, and told his officers not to discount having to confront chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

The US military will depend on “increased precision, speed, and agility,” he said. It will also both invest more in language and cultural training and use that knowledge to build better regional alliances and coalitions.

In the near term, Mullen will be working to make sure that US forces have a dwell time engaged in combat operations of no more than “one-to-one” for the active duty force, toward a goal of one-to-two, “while at war.” The National Guard and Reserves need to fulfill their traditional role as a “strategic reserve” to the active fighting force, he also said.

Mullen forecast a new and “comprehensive” approach to deterrence that will work not only relative to large nuclear-armed powers, but with small nonstate actors as well. He plans to develop “a new concept of strategic deterrence for the 21st century in terms of training, equipping, theory, and practice.”

Overall, Mullen said the Pentagon will, on his watch, take “a more global, strategic view.”

Is JCA Headed for a Crack-Up

The Senate has made a case that the Air Force and Army, which have been sharing the C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft program, should begin to part company on the project.

The Army sought $157 million in Fiscal 2008 for JCA work. Senators, in their 2008 defense authorization bill, refused those funds to the Army and instead voted to hand them over to USAF, along with the Air Force’s own requested amount.

The Senate argued it makes more sense for the Air Force—by itself—to take over and manage fixed-wing airlift of this type.

The House version of the authorization bill, however, contained no such provision. The two sides duked it out in a conference in search of a mutually acceptable compromise.

The C-27J Spartan is a small airlifter. The Air Force plans to use it for a variety of active and Air National Guard missions that do not require an aircraft the size of the C-130J. Its list of missions includes transport of small Army forces.

The Army, however, wants to acquire its own fleet of Spartans so as to possess an autonomous airlift capability. These aircraft would replace the Army’s old C-12 and C-23 transports, which had very limited range and capability. The airlift provided by these systems has been justified as being “organic” to the Army mission—in effect, a direct adjunct of the land warfare, the Army’s principal role.

Until now, the Army was planning to acquire its first C-27Js next year.

The Senate had its critics. In October, the Pentagon asked Senators to reconsider its decision, saying JCA will meet an important need for both services by delivering “time-sensitive, mission critical supplies and personnel … regardless of which service owns the aircraft.”

DOD noted that the two services worked out a memorandum of understanding defining how the C-27J will be used and that the program has been scrubbed through joint processes. Throwing the JCA to the Air Force, DOD claimed, would cause program delay.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, to provide some compelling reason for the Senate to change course.

Cody’s response—presented in the form of an 11-page letter—raised some serious questions about the Army’s acceptance of the current allocation of roles, missions, and functions among the US military services. (See “Editorial: The Last Tactical Mile and Other Tales,” p. 2.)

Cody predicted serious delays were USAF to take over the Army’s C-27J. Joint requirements work to date would come into question, he told Levin. The program office would have to move from Redstone Arsenal, Ala., to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and it would take the Air Force at least a year to identify and assign program personnel.

There could be contractor protests, said Cody, and the test schedule, based on Army requirements, would have to be thrown out, rewritten, and replanned.

Top Air Force officials disputed this assertion, claiming there would be no such delays.

Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, the Air Force vice chief of staff, informed Levin that the Air Force could take on the Army’s JCA without missing a beat. He noted that the Air Force has been a “full partner” in requirements development and source selection, and should be able to “devise a transition schedule that minimizes or results in no delay.”

If given the mission—and the funding—McNabb said the Air Force can meet the Army’s lift needs, even the time-critical ones. McNabb noted that USAF has accelerated the evacuation of wounded troops “300 percent” since USAF eliminated dedicated aeromedical aircraft and drew the aircraft from a standby pool.

Moreover, said McNabb, USAF could increase the “velocity” of shipments if it doesn’t have to move supplies from one service’s cargo handling equipment to the other’s.

The High Price of Competition

It isn’t often that Capitol Hill sends out flurries of letters supporting Air Force acquisition strategy, but in October, 66 members of Congress did just that, insisting that the “winner-take-all” structure of the Air Force’s new tanker procurement be preserved.

The letters were directed at Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, exhorting him to choose only one winner in the tanker contest between the Boeing KC-767 and the Northrop Grumman-European Aeronautic Defense and Space KC-30. The victor in the contest is expected to be announced in January.

It was rumored that the Air Force was considering dropping the one-winner plan, partly as a way to avoid a lengthy and costly protest of the big-ticket program. The service urgently needs to get new tankers to replace its 50-year-old KC-135Es, and can’t tolerate further delay. A split buy would probably inoculate the program from a protest. Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Arthur J. Lichte said in September that a protest in the KC-X could conceivably delay the program three years.

Possible justification for a split buy came from Jacques S. Gansler, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology in the Clinton Administration. Gansler, funded in part by the Northrop Grumman team, published a paper in August saying that a running competition for annual buys of tankers would drive down the cost of the aircraft, increase their quality, and eliminate the chance of a fleetwide grounding.

Gansler said such a contest would be modeled on the “Great Engine War” of the 1980s, and he has made the same argument for maintaining two engine suppliers for the F-35 program. He claimed that a running competition between Northrop Grumman and Boeing could save $16.6 billion on the KC-X buy of 179 aircraft. Two more buys of tankers—KC-Y and KC-Z—are planned through the 2040s, and more savings would accrue if the competition extended through those phases.

The Air Force did, indeed, consider a split buy and worked up numbers either way, senior service officials said. However, USAF decided it would cost about $2 billion up front to qualify both aircraft for duty, and thereafter exact an annual $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion in extra logistics costs to maintain two separate parts and maintenance systems. The Air Force didn’t see much potential for product improvement or dramatic cost reductions, especially given that it will only be able to buy 15 or fewer airplanes a year.

The Congressmen and Senators who rang in to voice their opinion agreed. According to one letter, signed by 14 Senators (nine Republicans and five Democrats), the split buy approach would eliminate all the benefits of competition “by guaranteeing business” to the loser.

If the Air Force were to buy 15 tankers a year—the upper possible limit, based on out-year funding plans—the “winner” in an annual split buy would probably get to build no more than 10 airplanes. The loser would still get to build five, and because of the small quantities involved, lawmakers argue there would be little incentive to make those aircraft better by investing in process changes or other efficiencies that are meaningful over large production runs but not worth doing in small ones.

The 52 Congressmen who wrote to lecture Wynne said the two-tanker approach is a luxury the Air Force can’t afford, given “many competing priorities” for those $2 billion to $4 billion a year in extra costs.

In October, Wynne confirmed that he would not consider a split buy.

Kick the Supplemental Habit

The Department of Defense’s way of buying things during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has gotten seriously out of whack, and needs to be put in order if long-term needs are to be adequately funded, according to a new think tank study.

Anthony H. Cordesman and Ionut C. Popescu, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that fully a third of the money spent by DOD now comes through war supplementals, and that a quarter of all the money requested by the Pentagon for 2007 “has been classified as ‘emergency’ spending.”

The authors said this “growing reliance on supplemental funding has had a negative impact on the development of long-term defense programs and budgets.” It has made it increasingly hard to develop a future years defense program that properly funds “multiyear efforts such as force reset, long-term readiness, increases in manpower, or force transformation.”

Over the last year, the evidence of this has been played out in Congress’ reluctance to fund things such as F-35 fighters as part of supplemental budgets, even though they replace things that have been consumed by the war.

The study recommends that the Pentagon wean itself off supplementals as a standard way of doing business. That’s going to get more important, not less, in the next few years, because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost at least $481 billion over the next 10 years, and that assumes a “more rapid withdrawal of US forces.” If there is a more gradual disengagement, the wars could cost more than a trillion dollars. The numbers cited by CSIS came from the Congressional Budget Office.

The cost of running the Defense Department is going to go sharply higher if for no other reason than the fact that many war-related costs are deferred, such as veterans’ health care and benefits and the cost of reset—replacing broken, destroyed, used-up, or obsolete gear.

Cordesman and Popescu also sounded a now-familiar note by pointing out that, even with large supplementals, defense spending is fairly small compared to spending spikes in the past, when adjusted for inflation and as measured as a part of Gross Domestic Product. In fact, “despite the relatively large increase in defense outlays since [Fiscal Year] 2001, the GDP burden is almost 20 percent lower than during the ‘peace-dividend era’ of the early 1990s.” Again, measured as a function of GDP, the Fiscal 2007 defense budget comes in at about four percent, while it was 6.2 percent in 1986, “the highest post-Vietnam value.”

In short, the nation can afford to spend more on defense, and should manage it under a single defense budget, not two or three per year, the authors asserted.

As a share of federal spending, Cordesman and Popescu said, the defense budget “is 40 percent lower than the peak Reagan-era value in FY 1987.” They noted CBO estimates that peg entitlements spending such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as rising to 15 percent of GDP and 75 percent of federal spending by the year 2030—a situation that dwarfs the rising costs of defense and is a more urgent problem.

The authors chided the Defense Department for lowballing future defense spending estimates, pointing out that the Pentagon anticipates “markedly lower levels of total DOD spending in the coming years despite the recent trend in the opposite direction.” They said the Pentagon would do well to get more realistic about what things are going to cost “in the FY 2009 budget request and beyond.” They also worried that investment in research and development is starting to slide, and will only get lower as the DOD must spend proportionately higher amounts on procurement, to correct the long procurement holiday of the 1990s and 2000s.