Base Force Review: Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the Pentagon must change the size and shape of the future force. (Office of the Secretary of Defense)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon leadership is constructing battle plans. But this battle doesn’t involve tanks rolling across the hills or bombing campaigns.
It’s a budget battle, and the plans will determine the size of the minimum force needed to meet the Obama administration’s military strategy objectives.
“It is definitely going to be a template for future change,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Defense News last week. “[W]e have to change, not just the size, but the shape of our force. That’s what behaving and acting strategically is all about.”
Carter was responding to questions about the so-called base force drill being conducted by the Joint Chiefs. It is the first time this type of review has been conducted since then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell ordered one in the early 1990s after the Cold War.
“[W]e are trying to use this time to anticipate what it is that the country needs for its future defense, where the most important parts of the world are going to be in the future, what the new frontiers are in warfare and make sure that we continue as a military to get there to that future before anybody else does,” Carter said.
The base force that Aspin and Powell constructed centered on two major simultaneous wars. The two-war requirement has since been deleted as the Pentagon’s budget has fallen.
“The base force is an exercise in defining what the minimal force is you think you must have to execute the strategy,” said Gordon Adams, an American University professor who oversaw defense budgeting during the Clinton administration.
At the same time, the Pentagon is also building a new quadrennial defense review to look at the future shape of the force.
“[W]hat we try to do is ask ourselves what are the most important parts of the world to the United States in the future,” Carter said. “What are the capabilities that we most need, recognizing that, to get to your budget point, we are not going to be able to have everything.”
Despite the budget cuts, Carter insists DoD will still fund its shifted focus to the Asia-Pacific region, a major tenet of the Obama administration’s 2012 military strategy.
“We are going to continue to resource the new strategic bomber, the aerial refueling tanker, which is an important part of that, our important sub-surface capabilities, electronic warfare, cyber, our alliances and partnerships, which are the bedrock for everything we do there,” he said.
DoD is developing as many as four fiscal 2015 budget proposals, which deal with different levels of cuts, according to Pentagon sources. Senior Pentagon officials have frequently cited preparation for two budgets, one that builds on the administration’s 2014 proposal and another that includes sequestration budget caps.
“We have been working on sequester-level budgets, but that is not what we think the country deserves or needs, and therefore, we are working on and planning for a range of budgets,” Carter said. “It is just natural.”
The Pentagon’s $527 billion fiscal 2014 budget proposal is $52 billion above federal spending caps. DoD is operating under a continuing resolution, which is about $30.9 billion less than the 2014 proposal, but still $20.7 billion above the spending caps, meaning that money would be subject to sequestration in January.
The cuts, defense officials say, are having an impact on their ability to train.
“There are very real effects on readiness; there are going to be real effects on some of our programs that we work so hard to reflect better buying power for the taxpayer and the war fighters,” Carter said.
Speaking at a Nov. 14 conference hosted by Defense One, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale agreed there is a “substantial” readiness issue. “We clearly have degraded readiness in the military right now,” Hale said, before comparing defense funding levels to an insurance policy.
“What we’ve done is greatly raise the deductible,” he said. “If you never have to make a claim, you won’t notice it. If you have to make a claim, if there is a major contingency operation, I think we will regret what we’ve had to do in terms of military readiness.”
If sequester stays, Hale sees a smaller military as the norm.
“If sequester-level budgets continue, we will get smaller; and we will have fewer forces and a smaller number of civilian personnel,” Hale said. “That takes a while to occur, so you won’t see the savings from that for a couple of years.”
That will play out with particularly high cuts to research and development (R&D) and procurement funds.
“You’ll probably see continued problems with readiness — they may be a little worse — and you will definitely see, especially early in a sequestered budget, a disproportionate cut in procurement and research and development areas,” Hale continued. “Early on, it’s one of the few ways we can meet abrupt budget cuts like sequestration, [by making] changes in the modernization and particularly in the procurement and R&D. You’ll see changes everywhere, but probably heavy in investment early on.”
That’s in line with what budget experts expect to see going forward, along with a more visible impact on DoD, since much of the 2013 cuts were made to unobligated procurement funding.
“There are fewer unobligated funds [in 2014],” said Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank. “You have less of a cushion.”
In 2013, procurement and research-and-development accounts were hit the hardest by sequestration, Harrison said.
“Over 40 percent of the cuts to procurement programs came out of unobligated [funds],” he said. “So it really did soften the immediate blow in 2013.”
Harrison noted that cutting unobligated procurement accounts now will hurt further down the road when the systems that were supposed to be purchased have not been built. Traditionally, DoD spends only about one-fourth of its procurement dollars in the years they’re appropriated.
“It’s money that would have eventually been spent, so it will have an impact,” Harrison said.
Vago Muradian contributed to this report.