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Needed: A Forward Looking, Yet Affordable Defense Program

The U.S. defense budget is a means to support the broader national security policies of the United States, as well as underpin the defense strategy of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the military capabilities of the U.S. armed forces. The next Administration will need to develop a forward looking, yet affordable defense program that meets the challenges of radical Islamic terrorism, an increasingly aggressive Russia, and rising Chinese challenges in the Western Pacific.

To service those strategic ends, defense budgets will need to be large enough to support a military force structure that enables the US to meet its abiding security commitments, while also flexible enough to adapt to new and emerging security challenges. The US armed forces should be shaped and sized to deter and defeat “large-scale aggression” in one theater (with the help of US allies), while also be large and resilient enough to conduct military operations in other theaters.  Major force structure changes will likely be needed in two areas: first, an expansion of the US Navy to 325-350 ships for the long-term, and second, a potential US commitment to work in unison with Middle Eastern and NATO allies to defeat ISIS in Iraq and the Levant.  This may require revisiting the Obama Administration decision to reduce US Army end strength to 450,000.

Ongoing procurement and modernization programs will also need to be structured so as to maintain the U.S. advantage in deployed military technology, forestall unnecessary force aging, and forgo long-term structural disarmament. Key programs that will need to be resourced include the F-35 fighter, the SSBN-X strategic ballistic missile submarine, the KC-46 tanker, the Long-Range Strike-Bomber (B-21), Global Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), shipbuilding generally (carriers, surface ships and attack submarines), ground combat vehicles, and Missile Defense. Defense procurement and RDT&E should rise at least $10 billion annually above Obama Administration projections to accommodate a more robust investment profile.         

The U.S. has the economic resources to sustain defense spending above current DoD base budget levels of roughly $524 billion and 3% of GDP. The FY17 President’s Budget actually projects that budget authority all 050 National Defense programs will fall below 3% by FY18 — this course needs to be corrected. Real defense growth of 1-2 percent is achievable, as was demonstrated during the George W. Bush Administration. A large infusion of defense spending at the $80-90 billion level — something similar to a return to the FY12 Gates FYDP —  is at this time neither necessary nor sustainable over the long-term.  However, initial DoD topline increases on the order of $15 billion annually could provide the next Administration with the outline of a militarily sustainable and politically supportable and defense resource strategy, providing needed relief for the military at a critical crossroads in defense planning.

An important component of such a program would include savings accrued from defense-wide enterprise reforms involving military medical health care, responsible reductions in DoD civilian employees, and elimination of excess capacity in DoD military installations.  Such reforms would enable fiscal savings of several billion dollars annually, providing additional headway for defense investment initiatives.  Additionally, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding for on-going Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL and Operation INHERENT RESOLVE requirements should continue for several more years.  The ultimate planning goal should be the transfer of OCO resources into the DoD base budget, with budgetary relief and full resource transparency.

The basic issue facing the country is one of these priorities: Is the US going to retain the priority it has historically placed on defense, or is it willing to accept a continuing contraction in spending and a resultant retreat in American power and influence? The current sequestration environment, instigated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, places significant resource constraints upon DoD and puts the long-range US defense program in considerable jeopardy. Several Secretaries of Defense and the current Service Chiefs all have spoken out against sequestration and the threat it poses to DoD’s ability to execute the current military strategy and adapt to future threats. 

A first order resource policy priority for the new Administration, with the assistance of a new Congress, should be the repeal/replacement of the FY18-21 outyear ceilings for defense within the Budget Control Act of 2011. Our future political leadership will need to speak forcefully and candidly about the adverse consequences of an extended defense drawdown and offer an intelligent, sustainable future growth path for defense. These are central elements to establishing long-term resource stability in the U.S. defense program. A balanced, sensible approach offers the most promise for long-term program and budget stability.

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Wayne A. Schroeder is President of Schroeder Defense Group. At IWP, he teaches courses on Defense Strategy, Planning and Budgeting and International Organizations and Multilateral Diplomacy.