The Pentagon is considering a range of options to meet a bipartisan call to greatly reduce defense spending in what is a “perfect storm” rocking the military’s once-sturdy budget plans.
The Army is looking at paring down combat brigades and ending some targeting and communications systems. The Navy might delay ship construction and shed sailors.
Also, the purchase of the most expensive weapon system ever, the $380 billion F-35 joint strike fighter, could be pared from a planned 2,443 stealth jets.
“The process inside the [Pentagon] is quite chaotic because there are so many potential outcomes and nobody really knows what level to budget for,” said Loren Thompson, who directs the pro-business think tank Lexington Institute.
The perfect storm emerges in the winding down of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan coinciding with a debt crisis that could force Pentagon cuts of $900 billion over 10 years. These developments mean the military can make do with fewer troops and weapons programs.
The debt-reduction agreement between the White House and Congress calls for $350 billion in national security reductions, most of which will hit the Pentagon.
Then there is what Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has called the “doomsday mechanism”: If a 12-member congressional “supercommittee” fails to agree this fall on additional spending cuts, the federal budget would face automatic reductions. The Pentagon’s share: up to $600 billion in addition to the $350 billion.
The Pentagon had been planning on a $570 billion budget, minus war costs, for fiscal 2013, which begins October 2012.
But Mr. Thompson said the White House budget office wants cuts that could reduce the defense budget to $477 billion. “Looking at the scale of cuts that are currently being contemplated, it is easy to imagine the entire next generation of weapon systems will be wiped out,” he said.
A defense industry executive in Washington said all sorts of ideas are being discussed in the Pentagon to meet both possibilities. These include cuts to the most costly weapon system in U.S. history — the F-35 Lightning stealth fighter, which has been mired in cost overruns.
Mr. Panetta last month endorsed buying the next-generation plane that will replace the Air Force F-16 and A-10, give the Navy a new carrier-based bomber and provide the Marine Corps a successor to the Harrier vertical takeoff and landing jet.
“I think that plane will give us an important capability for the future,” he said. “From everyone I’ve talked to, they seem very pleased that it does in fact provide the capabilities that we need. But it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s still going through the test phase. We’ll learn a lot from the test phase. But I think it’s an investment that we ought to maintain for the future.”
The defense industry executive told The Washington Times that the Navy has talked about canceling the successor to the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine and converting some Virginia-class attack boats into missile carriers.
There is also talk of changing the schedule for inserting a new carrier into the fleet from five years to every seven years, and delaying construction of a new fleet oiler, the TAOX. The source said the Navy is doing all it can to make sure the fleet expands from its current level of 290 ships to its stated goal of at least 313 by the end of the decade.
With troops levels in Iraq dropping fast and with a planned withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the Army is eyeing a cut in the number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), its core fighting unit, according to congressional and defense industry sources.
A second industry source said he believes the Army will propose eliminating some BCTs in the 2013 budget and ultimately do away with six to eight of 45 active BCTs.
The Army now has an active force of about 570,000, which is expected to shrink to 520,000 under previously submitted budgets. But the second industry source said that number will likely fall to about 485,000 soldiers to meet the new spending constraints.
This source said the Army is looking at terminating at least three programs — an improved ground-to-air missile, a target acquisition system and a command-and-communication suite.
The Lexington Institute’s Mr. Thompson said: “The normal inclination of our political system when a budget crunch comes is to cut investment and keep funding people programs. But at the level of cuts currently being contemplated, that would wipe out the next generation of weapons system. So some major cuts to personnel are unavoidable.”
The Army also has been debating whether to cancel the new Ground Combat Vehicle, priced at $40 billion for 1,800 vehicles, and instead upgrade existing soldier carriers, the second industry source said.
“Most observers believe the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle are both doomed,” Mr. Thompson said.
The second industry source also said that the top brass remain committed to the Ground Combat Vehicle and noted that the Pentagon has allowed the Army to award initial contracts. “But there are no guarantees,” the source said, adding that Mr. Panetta’s staff may opt to terminate it.
Mr. Panetta has been urging Congress to reach a deal that heads off $500 billion to $600 billion in automatic defense cuts, or else face a “hollow” military. The term became famous during the Jimmy Carter administration when his Army secretary concluded that budget cuts had turned the service into a “hollow” force.
Calling automatic cuts a “doomsday mechanism,” Mr. Panetta told an audience at the Naval Post Graduate School: “The reality is that it will be devastating to the defense budget. It will hollow out the force. It will weaken our national defense. It will undermine our ability to maintain our alliances throughout the world. And, most importantly, it will break faith with the troops and their families.”