The Pentagon has begun a new hunt for cost savings that likely will lead to scaling back big-war weapons systems in favor of funding smaller conflicts typified by Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is selling the green-eyeshade exercise as a way to achieve more efficiencies by streamlining acquisition, cutting personnel and perhaps eliminating some organizations altogether.
But defense industry sources say the Gates team also is looking to kill or shelve weapons systems — a move that worries pro-defense conservatives who say it sends the wrong message to China, Russia, North Korea and other potential adversaries. Among the programs that might be subject to the budget ax are the next-generation ballistic-missile submarine and one or two of the Navy's 11 active carrier strike groups.
It would be the second time Mr. Gates applied the scalpel to big-war weapons, though his first effort was far more extensive. In 2009, he ended production of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, scaled back missile defense, retired scores of warplanes and put on hold the planning on a long-range nuclear bomber — systems associated with a clash of titans, not counterinsurgency.
"We want to look ahead to the years ahead and make sure that we're not creating something or imaging something or embarking on something that we're not going to be able to pay for," Ash Carter, the Pentagon's top acquisition officer, told reporters. "If we want to continue to invest in war-fighter capabilities, we're going to have to do that by finding efficiencies and being leaner."
At a time when the Congressional Budget Office is warning that the mounting U.S. debt is not sustainable, Mr. Gates has given his team the daunting task of finding $100 billion in savings over five years, starting in fiscal 2012, the budget that goes to Congress next winter. The aim is to keep overall defense spending of about $700 billion at a 1 percent, after-inflation, increase annually.
"What he's moving on to now is getting efficiencies out of the system by cutting overhead costs," said Loren Thompson, who runs the pro-business Lexington Institute. "They're going to achieve that by seeking greater productivity from contractors, by reducing unnecessary rules and regulations, and by tightening contract terms. My guess is that at the same time they are doing that they will cut additional weapons systems."
Mr. Thompson said that on the day he spoke with The Washington Times that Pentagon officials were meeting over the fate of the Marine Corps' $13 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The Corps has said the system is critical for Marines in future wars. But Mr. Gates has suggested that the vehicle is expendable in a war-fighting era when full amphibious assaults are unlikely.
"I think Gates' efforts to cut spending are necessary," said Mr. Thompson. "I can quibble about how they're doing it. But we've got a government that's spending $4 billion a day it doesn't have. The Pentagon just wastes a huge amount of money."
As Mr. Gates was planning to shift money from big future wars to current smaller ones, some conservatives noted an inconsistency last month. When the Obama administration wanted to project power directly at North Korea's doorstep, it dispatched F-22s and an aircraft carrier strike group — the very systems the defense secretary has singled out for cuts.
"Gates is doing what previous Democratic administrations have done repeatedly, and that is to hollow out our military," said Frank Gaffney, a defense official in the Reagan administration who directs the Center for Security Policy.
"The problem with such cuts in the forces we need to wage those much more difficult and more violent kinds of conflicts is that we put ourselves in a position where we may not be able to deter them as well as fight them," he said. "That's a terrible mistake and may cost us dearly."
In speeches last spring, Mr. Gates put the services on notice that more weapons cuts were coming. He disputed Navy proponents who say the sea service lacks fighters and ships for adequate global deployment and to keep in check countries such as Iran and China.
"Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?" Mr. Gates said. "Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?"
Days later at the Navy League, he said: "Our current plan is to have 11 carrier strike groups through 2040 and it's in the budget. And to be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But consider the massive overmatch the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities."
The Navy says it does need 11, and so do many conservatives.
"Carrier battle groups remain the backbone of our power projection capabilities at sea," said Mr. Gaffney. "The threats to those carrier battle groups are growing. There is no doubt about that. We need to do a vastly better job of protecting those vital elements of our fleet and indeed of our national capabilities. But I think it would be the height of folly to reduce or otherwise take actions that would disable us from having the sorts of force projection capabilities that they uniquely represent."
Mr. Gates is being pressed from another front. Last week, a bipartisan panel of defense analysts called for a bigger Navy, not a smaller one, by increasing the fleet from 282 ships to 346.
"The United States must be fully present in the Asia-Pacific region to protect American lives and territory, ensure the free flow of commerce, maintain stability and defend our allies in the region. A robust U.S. force structure, one that is largely rooted in maritime strategy and includes other necessary capabilities, will be essential," said the panel, headed by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, a Democrat, and former White House National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, a Republican.
Norman Polmar, a recognized authority on the Navy who is writing his 50th military book, said there are new strike and spy platforms today that could allow for one or two fewer carriers. The Navy, for example, will operate with only 10 while it retires one carrier and awaits the launching of a new one, the USS Gerald R. Ford.
"The Navy will make do," Mr. Polmar said. "Will it mean longer deployments? Yes. Hopefully it will also mean the Navy's leadership and [Defense Department] will re-evaluate how we use carriers."
What has happened, he said, is a revolution in smart weapons to the point where surface ships and submarines can deliver cruise missiles on target instead of strike aircraft from a carrier offshore. For reconnaissance, there are satellites and unmanned vehicles instead of planes.
"Today, you want to hit somebody and you send a destroyer or submarine and you shoot 20 or 30 or 50 Tomahawk missiles," he said. "We've got different capabilities in other ships that can do, to some degree, not completely, what a carrier does."
Mr. Polmar said that if Mr. Gates settles on nine instead of 11 carriers, the Navy would need to increase the number of cruisers and destroyers to replace the firepower. He estimates that the Navy would save $1 billion annually in operating costs for each 6,000-sailor carrier it eliminated.
"Gates' view is that the kind of wars we're fighting today are probably what we will face tomorrow also," said Lexington's Mr. Thompson. "So the logic of much of what he wants to do comes down to whether you believe his predictions about the future.
"I suspect that if we bank on fighting irregular warfare in the future, that some smart adversary will look at our emerging gaps in conventional war-fighting capability and try to challenge us there," he said. "I sometimes get the impression policymakers don't understand how far gone the Cold War arsenal is and how decrepit things like our fighters are."
Said Mr. Gaffney: "As long as we've got global interest, we've got to be able to project power globally. It's not just in any given region. It's truly global. And the problem is that as we see the Russians and the Chinese and the Indians and others proliferating the means by which to attack our ships, that is becoming more challenging."
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