How Pentagon budgets are hitting America's defenses where it hurts

July 8, 2014
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 8 July 2014. I ran across a news story this week that starkly illustrates the bind the U.S. military finds itself in as defense budgets continue to shrink while the military services continue to insist on ever-more-expensive weapon systems.
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 8 July 2014. I ran across a news story this week that starkly illustrates the bind the U.S. military finds itself in as defense budgets continue to shrink while the military services continue to insist on ever-more-expensive weapon systems.

Think about that a second: less money, more expensive weapons. Doesn't sound sustainable, does it? Then I see this headline: "U.S. Navy Warns It Can't Meet 30-Year Funding needs." What a surprise.

At first I thought this must be political posturing by Navy leaders; as far as they're concerned none of the military services EVER has the money it needs to carry out its mission adequately. Still, the story goes on to lay out how one military service is planning for a future it most likely can't afford. I suspect it's the same with all U.S. military services across the board.

The story by Tony Capaccio, which appears on the Website, says the Navy's latest congressionally mandated 30-year shipbuilding plan requires funding at an unsustainable level unless spending on shipbuilding is increased.

Related: Appearance of three Chinese nuclear submarines is reminder that ASW remains a high priority

I don't see a major increase in the Navy's shipbuilding budget anytime soon, so this means we could be in real trouble -- especially as the Pentagon's budget squeeze could have a bad influence on Navy submarine building and maintenance.

Some experts warn that a militarily resurgent China is beginning to match U.S. defense technology in areas like jet fighters, surface warships, and aircraft carriers, with which China would hope to deter any U.S. military intervention should China decide to attack and assimilate Taiwan.

These same experts point out that nuclear-powered attack submarines and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are some of the few areas where U.S. military technology is clearly ahead of China's.

Submarines, furthermore, could prove decisive in a confrontation over Taiwan between the U.S. and China. These stealthy undersea vessels could operate undetected in many areas of the Western Pacific, and would be capable of destroying Chinese troop and supply ships attempting to invade Taiwan.

Related: Navy ship systems work moves forward in tough times

Suffice it to say that advanced submarine technology is a major pillar of the so-called U.S. "pivot to Asia." The importance of maintaining U.S. submarine superiority over potential adversaries in Asia cannot be overstated, yet submarines are identified as one vulnerability in the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan.

Specifically at risk in a declining U.S. defense budget is a Navy plan to develop a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile and cruise missile submarines to replace the nation's 18 Ohio-class submarines now in commission.

"After 2019, the Defense Department will confront a confluence of expenses that includes the new submarines, planned full production of Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT)'s fighter jet and a new Long Range Strike bomber," Capaccio wrote on Bloomberg.

It seems that budget realities would show us that at least one of these three planned major new programs would have to go; for the sake of Taiwan and continued peace in the Western Pacific, let's hope the submarines aren't the ones on the chopping block.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter was conceived in a time of plenty for the Pentagon. They're fantastically expensive, questionably reliable, and it's unknown just how much these aircraft will cost to operate and maintain once they're deployed.

Related: Navy orders 40 Lockheed-Martin F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft in contracts worth $4.15 billion

Does the U.S. military need a replacement aircraft for its ageing fleets of F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters, F-16 Falcon jet fighters, and A-10 Warthog ground-support aircraft? The answer, unquestionably, is yes. The real question is should an aircraft as expensive as the F-35 be the solution? It might be moot, however, as the F-35 program may be too far along to stop.

It that program continues, as it very likely will, it will continue to suck much of the oxygen out of U.S. military capability for the future. As for the future new long-range bomber, I'm not convinced of its importance.

I would claim, however, that developing and maintaining advanced fast-attack and ballistic-missile submarine technology far outweighs the importance of the F-35 and the long-range attack bomber for the immediate future ...

... and for the time being, I would expect to see more of these kinds of reports that indicate the Pentagon's long-term plans simply are too expensive to pursue.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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