Latest attempt at defense reform is business as usual - for now

WASHINGTON - Maintaining the status quo rather than substantially overhauling today`s military structure is likely to be the focus of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) scheduled for submission to Congress May 15. Given the almost-certain retention of the present policy of coping with two major regional wars nearly simultaneously, and the political impossibility of increasing the defense budget, Pentagon planners face some tough decisions to meet demands of Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Sta

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON - Maintaining the status quo rather than substantially overhauling today`s military structure is likely to be the focus of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) scheduled for submission to Congress May 15. Given the almost-certain retention of the present policy of coping with two major regional wars nearly simultaneously, and the political impossibility of increasing the defense budget, Pentagon planners face some tough decisions to meet demands of Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to keep U.S. military forces up to date.

The roles of U.S. military forces are expanding, but their resources aren`t. In addition to preparing for two regional contingencies - say, in Korea and the Persian Gulf - American fighting forces have the expanding burden of peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, drug interdiction, and other non-traditional roles, which now are known collectively as small-scale contingencies.

Yet the Pentagon`s plan for the future calls for outlays to grow modestly, before inflation, from $247.5 billion next year to $261.4 billion in 2002.

That won`t cover the commitments. Something has to give, and the most tempting targets are the twin pillars of modernization: research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E); and procurement. Of the two, RDT&E is the more vulnerable. It has already taken hits to pay for the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

Pentagon leaders are just beginning to realize savings from their most recent round of acquisition reforms and base closures. These efforts will continue, but they`re approaching the point of diminishing returns. Personnel reductions are also on the table in the QDR process - particularly shaving the 10 Army divisions and three Marine Corps divisions - but that`s another politically difficult solution. Don`t look for any action on that one soon.

More of the same

The QDR therefore is essentially an extension of existing policy, which confirms the strategy of preparing for two regional contingencies along the lines of Desert Storm, in addition to various small-scale contingencies such as the current operations in Bosnia, plus a continuous global presence by the Navy.

Just as existing policy reflects a changed world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the QDR era represents what Pentagon officials call a "period of strategic pause" in which no superpower threatens the United States. This era is projected to last until 2010, and implicit in that schedule is the timing of the emergence of China as the next superpower to challenge the United States. This leaves plenty of time to prepare for that challenge - if leaders use the time wisely.

Looking beyond future planning at the Pentagon, experts at the Washington-based Brookings Institution say U.S. forces will need an extra $15 billion to meet their commitments after 2002, as measured in constant 1997 dollars and assuming force levels of 1.4 million active-duty personnel.

More base closures and selling off such support functions as housing, commissaries, and health care can make a $5 billion dent in that shortfall, says Michael O`Hanlon, a research associate in Brookings`s foreign policy studies program. Lopping off one Army division and half of a Marine division can free up another $5 billion, he adds, but about $2 billion of that must come from enhanced pre-positioning and improved airlift and sealift capabilities, he warns.

Then there are the costs of the regional contingencies and small-scale contingencies themselves; these aren`t in anybody`s projections. For example, DOD officials are requesting an additional $2 billion from Congress to cover the Bosnian mission. This is probably going to be the pattern for the future, which means that whatever strategy emerges from the QDR will be tempered by the degree of congressional willingness to provide the necessary money.

Although the Persian Gulf War is an example of cooperation by coalition forces, it is not reasonable to expect much support from allies in future conflicts. For openers, they lack the mobility and logistics capabilities; these would have to come from the United States. Also, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the NATO allies can make the case that they spent 40 years on the front lines facing the major share of casualties as well as hosting U.S. forces.

Big-ticket hits

So, by a process of elimination, some of the big-ticket weapon systems are going to face drastic cutbacks or even extinction if the QDR continues existing policies. To achieve consensus among service leaders, DOD officials must tip-toe around that issue for now, but it won`t go away. The other shoe is poised to drop, probably after next year`s elections.

The ones least likely to be cut are the relatively inexpensive (by Pentagon standards) programs that enhance battlefield situational awareness and thus make the biggest contributions to regional strategies, such as the Army`s battlefield digitization project, unmanned aerial vehicles, the Global Broadcast System, the Space-Based Infrared System, Milstar, and the Navy`s Cooperative Engagement Capability. Army leaders can also make a good case for their upgrades, such as Longbow Apache, the Abrams tank, and Bradley fighting vehicle.

The most vulnerable are the six "leap-ahead" systems for which DOD officials requested $10 billion for RDT&E and procurement in 1998 and another $63 billion between 1999 and 2003: the Army`s RAH-66 Comanche scout/attack helicopter, the Marine Corps` V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, the Navy`s New Attack Submarine, the Air Force F-22 Raptor jet fighter, the Navy F-18 E/F Superhornet fighter-bomber, and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). These represent significant technological improvements to counter another superpower, but it`s going to be hard to justify their cost to put down another Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

V-22, F-22 at risk

O`Hanlon at Brookings contends that DOD officials could save $5 billion annually after 2002 by canceling the V-22, scaling back the F-22 from 438 to 150 aircraft, and trimming the Superhornet from 1,000 to 300. The latter two aircraft would be the "silver bullets" for their services` particularly demanding missions.

To supplement them, the Air Force and Navy could build more conventional F-15 fighters and F/A-18 C/Ds, respectively. The F-22 is also a thorny problem. Air Force officials have spent nearly $20 billion on RDT&E already, yet they could apply much of that to the JSF.

Whatever final form the report takes after it emerges from the QDR, the issues it addresses will be with us for a long time. There`s never a good time to wrestle with issues like this, but the current "period of strategic pause" has to be a relatively benign time.

American preeminence is beyond dispute. As The Economist of London put it in a recent survey of the future of warfare, "America is likely to maintain its huge lead, at least until and unless a richer China or a revived Russia pushes itself into the competition." This is a status quo worth maintaining.

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