Looming Budget Cutbacks Underpin Defense Strategy

Article excerpt

How long the fighting in Iraq will last is anyone's guess. It seems quite certain, however, that mounting war costs will be wreaking financial havoc on many of the military's prized weapon systems.

When the Pentagon leaked a budget planning document in late December that mandated $30 billion in weapon procurement cuts, the message came across loud and clear: big-ticket acquisition programs will be either scaled back or canceled.

The official rhetoric from the Defense Department is that "everything is on the table," but that no drastic decisions will be made until the completion of the Quadrennial Defense Review, a mandatory study of military capabilities and missions.

In reality, the Pentagon and the services already have signed off on a 2007 budget blueprint that probably will not be influenced by the contents of the QDR. In coming weeks, the Pentagon also is expected to OK a new military strategy that will call for the services to structure their forces for unconventional antiterrorist operations, and will do away with the requirement of having to prepare to fight two full-scale wars.

The demise of the two-war paradigm should give the Defense Department enough maneuver room to justify downsizing pricey weapons programs so it can finance the hefty price tag--approaching $300 billion--of keeping Army and Marine Corps troops deployed in Iraq. Among the obvious targets will be Air Force fighter jets and Navy ships.

Not surprisingly, this approach to managing resources is not universally welcome at the Pentagon, where some senior officials are questioning the wisdom of letting near-term problems drive long-term strategic decisions.

Simply put, is it prudent to scale back traditional weapons systems when nobody really knows what sort of enemies the United States will face in 10 or 20 years?

Some decision makers at the Pentagon today are guilty of shortsightedness, suggests Maj. Gen. Ronald J. Bath, head of strategic planning for the U.S. Air Force.

The $30 billion budget cut the Defense Department mandated last year--much of which will come from Air Force programs--is a clear indicator that short-term thinking is dominating the process of reshaping the military, Bath tells National Defense. He fears that the global war on terrorism will drain enough military resources to jeopardize what he sees as important efforts to ensure the United States can remain ahead of any competing power in the future.

"I don't know how long the global war on terrorism is going to last, but I do know that 20, 30 and 40 years from now, there will be countries at a strategic crossroads that we have to think about," Bath says. "As we do this force construct, we need to debate our relationship as a superpower, not just short-term but long-term. …