Streamlined U.S. Military Looks Towards Asia

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Budget proposals published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on 13 February were pivotal in three ways. They came as America disengaged from two long-running wars; as it sought to shift the strategic balance of its forces away from Europe and towards the Asia-Pacific; and as the Pentagon sought to enact significant spending cuts mandated by Congress. Since the themes had been indicated in previous announcements, the main interest was in the detail of the many cuts proposed for the military and its equipment programs. However, the budget's publication was the beginning rather than the end of the process: it shifted battles about specific reductions beyond the Pentagon hierarchy and into the political arena.

Policy imperatives

U.S. forces have been engaged in continuous combat operations since October 2001. The last American troops left Iraq in December 2011, while combat deployments to Afghanistan are due to end by 2015. The end of these operations is, in the words Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a 'strategic turning point' that gives the DoD a chance to reassess force structures, roles and inventories. That U.S. forces would become smaller was not in doubt. They had been expanded since 2001, as the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq turned into long-term missions. But new strategic guidance issued in January said forces would no longer be sized 'to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations'. Rather, the aim was to have a joint force that was smaller, leaner, agile and flexible, able to work within a range of operational concepts and environments. The services would be expected to retain the expertise of a decade of war, including training coalition forces in counter-insurgency, and they would be 'able to reconstitute quickly or grow capabilities as needed'.

The proposed changes were framed by January's examination of strategic priorities, under which the U.S. military will 'rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region', though the Middle East will remain a key area. There will be a reduced emphasis on Europe. Maintaining and developing security partnerships is seen as a way of 'sharing the costs and responsibilities of global leadership'. Planned reductions, however, need to be put into context: while it is true that, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2011, 'a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things', American forces will still be the most capable and expensive in the world.

Numbers in perspective

As part of the DoD's contribution to national debt reduction, the Budget Control Act of August 2011 mandated the Pentagon to reduce defense spending from the amounts that had been envisaged in the FY2012 budget by $259.4 billion over five years and $487bn over ten years (see graphic). Cuts now being planned, therefore, represent downward revisions to previously formulated spending plans for FY2013–17, at an average of $51.2bn or 8.7% per year. However, the actual fall in the defense budget for FY2013, from the budgeted level for FY2012, will be only $5.2bn to $525.4bn, a nominal-terms decline of 0.98%, or a real-terms reduction of 2.02% at constant 2011 prices. After FY2013, the base defense budget is set to rise again at an average real annual rate of 0.9% until FY2017. Meanwhile, funds allocated in FY2013 for overseas contingency operations, mainly the war in Afghanistan, are proposed to fall by 23.1% in nominal terms or 23.9% in real terms to $88.5bn. Adding this figure to the base budget, the overall amount to be spent on defense is set to fall from $645.7bn in FY2012 to $613.9bn in FY2013.

Service specifics

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, which have expanded in numbers over the past ten years, will be hit hardest by the cuts: over the next six years the army will contract from 570,000 to 490,000 regulars, while the Marines are reducing from 202,000 to 182,000. Although both services plan to retain the capability to restore themselves to their former size, by retaining more mid-grade officers and non-commissioned officers than the force structure requires, the reduced size of the regular establishment will increase the importance of the reserves. Thus the army and marine reserves will remain at their current sizes, and the Army National Guard will reduce personnel by less than 1%.

Eight out of the army's 45 regular Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) will be disbanded, including two of the four currently based in Europe. But until the future force structure has been finalized, the numbers in the budget proposal are still subject to change. Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno said the army would consider the optimum design of BCTs and enabler units, and that this 'could lead to a reduction of additional brigades if we decide to increase the capability of our current brigade combat team structure'. One option is to increase the number of combat battalions in each brigade.

Funding allocated for the army's only new armored fighting vehicle program, the Ground Combat Vehicle (to replace the Bradley), amounts to $640 million for research and development. However, some army and Marine Corps capabilities are to see a moderate rise in funding: the number of active combat aviation brigades will increase from 12 to 13, and the fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will grow, as will army Special Operations Forces and cyber capabilities. However, modernization of the helicopter fleet has been slowed, and the army's Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System, which was designed to provide a capability broadly similar to the air force's MC-12, has been terminated.

The Marines will lose one of their nine infantry regiment HQs and four regular infantry battalions. Marking a shift from land-based campaigns fought over the past ten years, the Marines are to 'return to an afloat posture', projecting power from the sea, as they withdraw from Afghanistan. They will retain an amphibious fleet of large vessels, though in lower numbers than originally intended.

The major sacrifice made by the U.S. Navy has been the early decommissioning of seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers and two Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships. The Ticonderoga-class vessels Cowpens, Anzio, Vicksburg and the BMD-capable Port Royal will be decommissioned in FY2013, with the remainder to follow, along with the Whidbey Island-class vessels, in FY2014. Some ship-building programs will be delayed: construction of the second Ford-class aircraft carrier will now take six years rather than four; the second America-class amphibious assault ship will be delayed by one year; and the Ohio-class submarine replacement – the SSBN(X) – will be delayed by two years.

The number of littoral combat ships (LCS) ordered in FY2016 and FY2017 will be reduced from three to two each year, though their brown-water capability makes them an important element of future force strategy: one or more LCS will be forward-deployed to Singapore. New Virginia-class submarines will be modified to carry more cruise missiles, thereby improving their land-attack capability. The navy will also refit the U.S.S Ponce, a landing-platform dock due to decommission in 2012, to act as an afloat forward-staging base for operations in the Middle East, able to 'support missions in areas where ground-based access is not available, such as counter-mine operations'. The navy will also retain a fleet of 11 large aircraft carriers.

For the U.S. Air Force, most interest surrounded the F-35 Lightning fighter program, previously known as the Joint Strike Fighter and due to be bought by the air force, navy and Marine Corps. Overall purchasing plans were scaled down and decelerated, partly reflecting technical problems encountered in the aircraft's development. The level of simultaneous development within the F-35 program has magnified technical problems which have arisen. The air force will take delivery of 166 F-35As by FY2017, rather than the previously planned 264. The navy will acquire 69 fewer F-35Bs and Cs over the FY2013–17 period than previously projected. It will instead purchase 41 F-35B short take-off and vertical landing craft and 37 F-35C carrier variants over this five-year period. The Marines will proceed with plans to acquire the F-35B, which had previously been in question. Slowing delivery of the F-35 for the three services will save $15.1bn between 2013 and 2017. However, as a result, up to 350 of the air force's F-16s will be put through a life-extension program.

Air Mobility Command will see the decommissioning of 27 C-5A Galaxy strategic transport and 65 C-130H Hercules tactical transport aircraft, as well as all 38 planned C-27J Spartan intra-theater-transport airlifters. These cuts reflect the draw-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the reduction in strength of the army and Marines. The scrapping of 11 RC-26, one E-8 JSTARS and 18 RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk UAVs will have an impact on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance fleets. The Global Hawk announcement is noteworthy: while the air force continues to promote remotely piloted air systems as an increasing part of its inventory, this is not at any cost. The decision to delete the Block 30 was taken on the grounds that it was less cost effective than the manned U-2, first flown in the 1950s. Weapons procurements were also affected: the Joint Dual-Role Air Dominance Missile, intended as a successor to the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, has been terminated. However, the demand for an eventual AMRAAM replacement remains.

The air force's aim is to protect programs that are deemed most relevant to emerging strategic priorities and future force requirements by cutting tactical aviation fleets, stretching out key procurement programs and axing others. Some tactical capabilities, including aircraft projects intended for counter-insurgency, have been hit: the A-10 Thunderbolt fleet will be reduced by 102 aircraft, while the Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance and Light Mobility Aircraft projects have been scrapped. More broadly, 21 of the Air National Guard's Block 30 F-16s will also be withdrawn, while the air force's 65th Aggressor Squadron will be disbanded and some of its 24 F-15s redeployed. The increased emphasis on the Asia-Pacific places long-range strike capabilities at a premium. Seed funding for the long-range strike bomber (intended to have manned and unmanned variants able to penetrate defended airspace) continues in FY2013, with $291m allocated, while the FY2013–17 spend in total will be around $6.3bn. Initial operational capability is tentatively projected for the mid-2020s.

What now?

For all the talk of the military rebalancing to Asia, the steps taken towards this in the FY2013 budget are quite modest. The number of troops in Europe is to be cut by 10,000 to about 70,000, while Marines are to be deployed to Australia and LCS to Singapore. In the Middle East region, the number of troops deployed will have fallen very sharply from peak levels, but the region remains in sharp focus for the U.S. military and substantial assets will remain in Kuwait and other locations. Over time, rebalancing does seem likely to be significant, fueled by Washington's economic and security interests in Asia, as well as its concerns over anti-access and area-denial strategies that might be employed by potential regional competitors. But it will be a long-term process: for example, the funding for a new long-range bomber will take many years to bear fruit.

Like all budget cuts, those proposed will provoke argument in Congress, even though it has mandated them. For example, there will be resistance to new rounds of the Base Realignment and Closure process. But a further cloud hanging over the Pentagon is the possibility of an additional $500bn reduction over ten years through 'sequestration' if Congress fails to agree $1.2 trillion in spending reductions. Panetta has called this process 'a crazy, nutty tool'. But the possibility of its use highlights the uncertainty over the future spending plans of the world's biggest military power.

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