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The 'S' Word: US Military Can Stay Best Despite Sequestration

May. 20, 2013 - 03:56PM   |  
By THOMAS TAVERNEY   |   Comments
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And so, sequestration has come.

Sequestration is a reduction in funding without a reduction in programs, manpower, operational systems or infrastructure.

In a game of chicken, US leaders have slashed the accounts of high-profile and much-desired programs, eliminating some critical military training (the new lexicon “tiered training” means we are not training everyone, and its effects on readiness is a wound that will not become visible until the next crisis), cutting flight and maintenance hours, cutting TDY and support for symposiums, cutting civilian employees’ work days, and refusing to send carrier groups overseas.

Anyone who expected a backlash is disappointed. To the contrary, the nation has spoken in opinion polls saying that the sky did not fall as predicted, so maybe there is more that can be done without permanent damage.

Some fully embraced sequestration and others have run about like the proverbial Chicken Little exclaiming that it will ruin the nation. But its actual magnitude is nowhere near enough to help solve the immense US economic issues.

Over the next 10 years, we would have spent $47 trillion without sequestration, and a little more than $46 trillion with it. Even if we eliminated the more than $500 billion for the Department of Defense, we still would be going into debt to the tune of more than $500 billion per year. So sequestration, though it might be painful, is just a first step.

While I believe the economy is the biggest threat to our position as a world leader, I will focus on the impact of these financial challenges to DoD in general.

Step 1 was the $487 billion, or about $49 billion per year, voluntary reduction taken by DoD. Step 2 was sequestration, approximately an 8 percent across-the-board reduction. But these are extremely modest steps in solving the US fiscal mess.

The combination of these budget cuts have us looking at a $470 billion military vs. a $570 billion military. Certainly, the cuts being taken are scary to many, but if the services have a predictable top line and the ability to look across their entire budget in a bottom-up fashion, they can strategically divest based on reduced requirements and provide a smaller but still capable force. However, to date, that has not occurred.

Seemingly ignoring sequestration cuts, the president’s 2014 DoD budget proposal includes about $520 billion. This likely will not make it through Congress, and we will end up closer to $470 billion, or even lower, in the out years.

We should be able to field a solid military for $450 billion to $500 billion a year, but we need to let military leaders fashion their cuts in a strategic fashion. Right now, we have tied their hands behind their backs. We are carrying infrastructure we do not need, and building and sustaining weapon systems the military chiefs have tried to divest.

Air Force Space Command is trying to quickly move toward disaggregated, resilient and affordable systems, but this requires some moderate near-term investments to achieve the 10-year savings necessitated by sequestration.

To make our military leaders part of the solution to the pending fiscal storm, we need to free them of external competing interests.

For nearly 40 years, the defense budget has consumed a progressively smaller share of federal spending. It is now at its smallest share in 50 years and will drop below 12.5 percent by 2017. Over the past 70 years, the US military has gone from about 15 million personnel during World War II to about 1.4 million today.

But while manpower costs have shrunk, providing the best tools and equipment has increased in complexity and cost.

The total cost of space systems must be reduced. Buying the same types of systems in the same old way, where the community buys more expensive and complex systems, is not realistic.

To continue to provide unparalleled space capabilities, Air Force Space Command has advocated deploying and operating mixed constellations — that is, augmenting the current complex, highly integrated satellites with cheaper, disaggregated satellite architectures with shorter mission lives, where cost and schedule are primary programmatic drivers.

We also need to better leverage the commercial space industry. Commercial satellite buses, and commercial ride shares, offer significant opportunities to support the concept of disaggregation, reducing cost and increasing mission responsiveness.

We do indeed have a budget crisis. We have to be prepared for even more cuts to defense spending and we must think through this long before they come. Change is hard, but the US national security space community has developed plans to build disaggregated, lower-cost systems.

We need to allow the community to get on with these programs, and sooner rather than later.

The Quadrennial Defense Review is coming this year, a golden opportunity for the services to sit down as one team, without constraints, to assess what kind of military we can have for $400 billion, $450 billion and $500 billion.

Surviving sequestration is not the real challenge; providing the greatest military in the world at an affordable price in the future is the path we must plan for.

Thomas Taverney, senior vice president at SAIC and a former vice commander of US Air Force Space Command. These views represent only those of the author.

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