Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed details of the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal in an announcement at the Pentagon on Jan. 26.
The plan for fiscal year 2013, which starts Oct. 1, constitutes recognition of the nation’s fiscal crisis and makes a start toward cutting $487 billion in defense costs over the next dozen years. The plan calls for a leaner, more specialized military force with fewer people and smaller amounts of hardware. The proposal will no doubt face opposition from lawmakers seeking to protect industry in their home districts as well as from economists who argue that it doesn’t go far enough to address the nation’s deficit and debt ills.
The 2013 base budget, which totals $525 billion when costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not included, is $6 billion less than the one approved by Congress for the current fiscal year.
The plan’s proposed savings “will impact all 50 states and many … congressional districts across America,” Panetta said. He said that so-called spending cuts are really only reductions in projected growth, not reductions in actual spending. Still, Panetta said, the budget plan “obviously will cause some pain.”
- The Army and Marine Corps will lose a combined total of 92,000 troops, reducing the number of U.S. ground combatants to its lowest point since the late 1930s. However, special operations forces will be bolstered. The United States will increase its capability for small, focused commando operations like the one on Jan. 23, in which U.S. Navy SEALs rescued two kidnapping hostages in Somalia. Although it is not part of the 2013 budget plan, the landing ship dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) is being converted to serve as a “mother ship” to provide support for increased special operations.
- Production of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter will slow down, with the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy receiving 179 fewer airframes through the end of 2017. This puts a halt to a longstanding scheme to conduct tests while carrying out initial operations. Vice Adm. David Venlet, the Pentagon’s program manager for the F-35, said the F-35 still has a “surprising” number of technical problems that need to be fixed. Testing and developmental work will now come chronologically ahead of operational service, although the long-term plan to acquire 2,443 aircraft will remain unchanged.
- The Air Force’s RQ-4B Block 30 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft will be cancelled. The RQ-4B was slated to replace the U-2 “Dragon Lady” manned reconnaissance aircraft as long ago as 2009, but problems in integrating surveillance sensors have never been resolved. The service life of the U-2, whose initial design dates to 1955, will be extended. The Air Force has 33 U-2s (28 single-seat U-2S and five two-seat U-2ST models), all of which were modernized and re-engined in the late 1980s.
- The Defense Department will “divest” itself of 21 C-27J Spartan twin-engined tactical airlifters and kill plans to buy 17 more. Although the C-27J inventory is modest, the aircraft equip half a dozen Air National Guard units, where hometown and state-capital support is strong. It has not been announced what aircraft will fill in behind Guard C-27Js if they are retired.
Panetta also wants to retire about 10 percent of the Air Force’s fighter force, scale back procurement of the Navy’s littoral combat ship and ease spending on regional ballistic missile defense.
Consideration had been given to retiring one of the Navy’s eleven aircraft carriers, possibly the USS George Washington (CVN 73), which is due to have its nuclear fuel replenished in 2015. It now appears all carriers will be retained. The Air Force will continue to develop a new bomber.
The defense secretary and his advisors say the United States is not abandoning its longtime policy of being able to handle two major regional contingencies – two wars – at once. One Pentagon officer said the United States will still be able to blunt an attack by North Korea while also assuring the flow of oil-carrying tankers through the Straits of Hormuz. Some observers say the nation has never really had a capability to handle two major conflicts simultaneously and point to the near exhaustion of the armed forces and the need for a reboot after a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officials say U.S. military operations will be characterized by focus and precision, not by brute force. Supporters of the budget proposal point out that the armed forces will still be at about their size on Sept. 11, 2001, while detractors notice that the nation will have fewer troops than at the time of Pearl Harbor.
The plan makes no changes in one of the biggest chunks of the defense budget – military entitlements, including pay and benefits and especially the rapidly increasing cost of military pensions, known in military language as retired pay. Currently, military members can retire after 20 years of honorable service, an arrangement some critics say the nation can no longer afford.
A vigorous debate is likely in Congress this spring and summer.