The Obama administration may have to rethink whether the U.S. military will need 2,500 F-35 fighter jets, and needs to craft a clear, prioritized national security strategy, a top Pentagon adviser told reporters June 29.
The world has changed tremendously since when the F-35 fighter was designed, and potential American foes have acquired systems that could render other kinds of U.S. aircraft, missile systems and other platforms more useful in certain situations than the multibillion-dollar F-35, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
With possible American enemies, like China, developing and fielding ever-more advanced systems - such as sophisticated radar suites and surface-to-air missiles - Pentagon and administration officials must examine if the Lockheed Martin-made Lightning II will bring as much "value" to combat by the time it comes online next decade as thought decades previous when it was designed, he said.
Though the program has recently been in the spotlight due to significant cost growth and schedule delays, the Pentagon plans to buy a total of 2,457 of the three F-35 variants. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior DoD officials have tethered part of their legacies to turning around the program and one day fielding a fleet of that size.
But because it might not be as useful from so-called forward air bases or aircraft carriers because of foes' advanced air defenses, the Defense Department might have to swallow hard, buy fewer F-35s and use any savings to buy other aircraft and missiles.
Such alternatives, Krepinevich said, might prove more useful in combating such advanced air defenses. But, he added, "it depends on how we deal with this problem."
That very question is being studied as part of two ongoing internal Pentagon studies: one on the U.S. military's proper global posture, and another on how it should carry out long-range strike operations, said Krepinevich, who is a prominent member of the Defense Policy Board. That panel provides advice on a range of key issues directly to the defense secretary.
Krepinevich described a world that is rapidly changing, driven by a number of demographic and technological trends.
For one, CSBA analysts "see a lot of upset young people" that will be tempted to join groups like al-Qaida. That is an increasingly combustible trend, Krepinevich noted, because "greater and greater destructive power" is ending up "in the hands" of such individuals and groups.
Another emerging threat is the proliferation of both nuclear and precision-guided weaponry, he said, adding cyber attacks and the increasing vulnerability of U.S. space assets also will be major drivers of American security requirements.
Against that backdrop of threats, Krepinevich said the Obama administration needs a better overall security strategy. The administration does not appear to have put together a detailed, broadly focused security plan like the one Washington used to guide its actions during the Cold War.
The White House earlier this year released the Obama administration's first National Security Strategy. But that closely parsed study, Krepinevich said, is mostly a "public relations document." To the CSBA president, it is "striking" that the administration has not put together a more detailed version of the NSS.
He spoke to reporters during a briefing on a new CSBA analysis of the fiscal 2011 defense budget request. That study paints a rather bleak picture.
The study, compiled by CSBA budget guru Todd Harrison, describes a "growing wave of recapitalization requirements for aging equipment near the end of service life, despite continued growth in acquisition funding."
It also notes the Pentagon's 2011 budget "does little to control rising personnel costs for both DoD civilians and military personnel." Harrison also found "healthcare costs in particular continue to grow well above the rate of inflation." That is driven, in large part, by the "addition of new and expanded benefits and the growing disparity between the annual premium military retirees pay for TRICARE (which has not risen in 15 years)," the report states.
The administration's intention to reduce the deficit, and the continued economic slowdown, will place external pressures on defense spending.
Harrison sees a series of tough choices ahead for Pentagon officials. And many will pit people versus machines.
"The central challenge for the defense budget in the coming years is to find the right balance between personnel-related costs, such as pay, pensions, and healthcare, and equipment-related costs, such as new weapon systems and on-going military operations," according to the report.
"It can also be viewed as an intergenerational question-a choice between funding pay and benefits for today's military (and retirees) or funding the equipment and training needed for those who will fight tomorrow's wars," Harrison wrote. "The fiscal reality is that in a flat or declining budgetary environment, the Department will not be able to fund both to the same extent that it does today."