WASHINGTON — Despite all of the talk in the Pentagon and among the defense intelligentsia in Washington about the "new normal"— the present era of battling Islamic extremists while putting out security and humanitarian brushfires across the globe — there has really never been a "normal" year when it comes to national security.
And 2015 will be no different. The rise of the al-Qaida offshoot in Iraq, the Islamic State, — or Daesh, as US policymakers are increasingly referring to it — has prompted Washington to send 3,100 troops back to Iraq, with other allies offering about 1,500 more troops to help advise and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The air war over Iraq and Syria will also continue as the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria appears content to allow the Islamic State and other rebel groups battle among themselves in a bloodletting that continues seemingly without end.
Add to this the rise of a belligerent Russia at NATO's doorstep, which has caused Pentagon planners to rethink key elements of the US military's withdrawal from Europe.
The Pentagon has stepped up its training schedule with Eastern European and Baltic allies, who are eyeing their eastern borders nervously after Russia's annexation of Crimea and underground war in Ukraine.
All this occurs while 10,000 US troops remain deployed in Afghanistan, a peaceful "rebalance" to Asia continues apace, and US Africa Command oversees increased operations in the continent. Any "peace dividend" that the Pentagon could have expected after 13 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan can pretty much be forgotten.
And still, there are the modernization and budgetary fights in Washington to contend with.
While the White House insists on budgeting as if the Budget Control Act (BCA) and its attendant budget caps don't exist, some big bills are coming due in 2015.
The Air Force is expected to kick off an expensive Long Range Strike-Bomber program, begin flight testing of its KC-46 tanker, and the Marine Corps begins flying its version of the F-35 while wrestling with a new amphibious vehicle concept.
Likewise, the Navy will begin budgeting for its $100 billion SSBN(X) Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarine this year, while testing will begin on the first Zumwalt-class destroyer. The sea service will also finish retiring the last of its frigates, leaving the littoral combat ship as its primary small combatant.
The Army is also kicking off its Armored Multipurpose Vehicle effort and awarding a contract for the much-anticipated Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, which will eventually provide the service with 50,000 vehicles.
So it's another year of "new normal" for a building that has never seen anything else.
Operation Inherent Resolve: Countering the Islamic State group in Iraq will be a focal point of US military operations. The question is, how quickly can 3,100 US troops and 1,500 allied forces organize and train the nine Iraqi Army and three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades to take the fight to the Islamic State militants? Are they enough to get the job done, and what happens if Islamic State fighters attack these forces at their bases inside Iraq?
Airstrikes by the US and a handful of Middle Eastern and NATO allies may have blunted the Islamic State group's advance toward Baghdad. But as Iran's 1,000 deployed military advisers in Iraq deepen ties with Shia militias, the future for an Iraq that is a reasonably inclusive Shia/Sunni/Kurdish state remains in flux.
Operation Freedom's Sentinel: The US and NATO combat mission is officially over in Afghanistan, except when it's not. Washington insists that the 10,900 US forces bolstered by 4,000 NATO troops will no longer take offensive action against Taliban and Haqqani targets, and instead focus on training and advising Afghan forces and building up the ministries in Kabul.
But US and NATO forces still will be allowed to defend themselves if attacked, and can go after Taliban leadership in extraordinary cases. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said US forces will act only if the Taliban "directly threaten our people or our allies," and that "we're not going to target Taliban simply by virtue of the fact that they're Taliban."
With thousands of US troops and special operators still in country for at least 2015, however, it remains to be seen what kind of target they'll make for local fighters.
Fiscal 2016 Budget: The Obama administration has instructed the Pentagon to budget as if the BCA of 2011 never happened, and has already said it plans to request about $36 billion above the BCA's $499 billion cap. While Congress has found ways around the cuts over the past several years, the cuts are slated to come back in full force in 2016.
How much of that $36 billion will the new Republican-controlled Congress be willing to negotiate on? Include the uncertain overseas contingency operation request, and the new Congress and new civilian and uniformed Pentagon leadership will have a busy, and potentially fractious, year.
Joint Chiefs, Defense Secretary: There's a big shakeup coming in some of the top Pentagon leadership positions. With Ash Carter sure to be confirmed as the next secretary of defense — after a confirmation hearing expected to be a referendum on six years of Obama's foreign policy performance — the future occupants of some other offices are less certain. What is certain is that the Obama administration will have to send at least four top military officers to the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation hearings.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Vice Chief Adm. Sandy Winnefeld are both slated to step down this year, along with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.
Dempsey's replacement could be drawn from a wide pool of top officers, including Greenert; Adm. Samuel Locklear, current Pacific Command boss; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh; Central Command boss Gen. Lloyd Austin; Marine Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford; and Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, head of European Command.
Cyber: Cybersecurity took center stage in 2014, with President Obama announcing he plans to establish "rules of the road," for the Internet, which he called, "kind of the wild west." In December , Obama signed five cybersecurity bills, one of which codifies the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, a hub for the federal government, intelligence community and law enforcement.
Cyber attacks have hit most major US companies and the defense sector is far from immune. A Chinese national in July was indicted for hacking defense companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The Chairman: The US defense sector is worried, as one source put it, that incoming Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is "coming for us all." When asked if companies should be afraid of his time as chairman, McCain responded: "No, they shouldn't be scared — if they're performing." He has talked about changing the weapons-buying system to control costs at the onset of complex programs.
The Leadership: The two Senate leaders, Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., are changing jobs. And House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, has a larger majority. But sources say the politics of sequestration — that is, undoing it — have changed very little. The leaders charged with brokering the kind of fiscal deal that would end the automatic cuts are the same who concocted sequestration and have repeatedly failed to nix it.
The Freshmen: Five newly elected GOP senators will join the Armed Services Committee, including hawks such as Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. McCain has signaled he hopes the new members will fall in line with his interventionist philosophy. If they do, Obama administration nominees and officials will experience sharp questioning during hearings, and the president's policies will face tough scrutiny.
The Sequester: McCain has talked of using his chairmanship to turn back the spigot of military spending. But no single committee can do it. And as the 113th Congress was ending, no one else on Capitol Hill was talking about a "grand bargain" or even a "small bargain."
The War, The Law: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee quickly crafted and passed an authorization for the use of military force for America's war against the Islamic State group. Members of both parties say one is needed, but it became apparent last month the big sticking point with the White House will be something many Democrats, and some Republicans, want: Language to essentially prohibit US forces from participating in offensive combat missions.
The Streak: Congress has passed a National Defense Authorization Act for 53 consecutive years. But during the Obama era, getting a bill out of the Senate has not been easy. And that was with a Democratic chairman writing the upper chamber's version of the bill. McConnell vows to again move annual policy and spending bills. But the GOP is looking forward to including policy riders the president opposes, putting the streak at risk.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: After years of delays, cost overruns and technical failures, the F-35 program is scheduled to hit a major milestone this summer when the Marine's F-35B "jump-jet" variant goes operational. That moves the jet from developmental into a fighter that will be deployed. If the July 1 target date is not hit, it could be a warning sign for the Air Force and its August 2016 target date.
KC-46A Pegasus Tanker: The KC-46A is the first in a three-step process to replace the Air Force's tanker fleet and 2015 will be a key year as the first test flight of a fully equipped KC-46A is scheduled for spring. Getting that step out of the way is crucial to make sure the tanker remains on track for a 2017 initial operating capability date.
Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRSB): Details of the LRSB, among the most mysterious programs in the Pentagon, may become available soon — a contract award is expected in the first half of 2015. Northrop Grumman is facing off against a team of Lockheed Martin and Boeing for the right to produce 80-100 of the penetrating bombers.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan: The F-35 joint strike fighter is about to switch from test flights into a fully operational fighter jet. And Bogdan, who took over the program in late 2012, has received praise for getting the F-35 back on track and forcing a hard line with corporate partners, but his job doesn't get easier. Expect more choices on international sustainment options, software upgrades and perhaps increased partner buys in 2015.
Deborah Lee James, Gen. Mark Welsh: Air Force Secretary James and Chief of Staff Welsh face tough choices in 2015. In addition to morale and personnel crises, such as reforming the nuclear enterprise, handling drawdowns and the ongoing challenge of sexual assault, they have to navigate a Congress highly skeptical of the service's budget decisions, particularly the push to retire the A-10 Warthog. If the two can't repair relations with the Hill, 2015 could be very rocky for the service.
Maj. Gen. John Shanahan: The Air Force looks locked into a long air conflict in both Iraq and Syria, one which likely will be driven by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. As the head of the newly stood up 25th Air Force, Shanahan is the point man for managing assets and long-term ISR strategy. His recommendations will help shape not just the current conflict, but how the service approaches ISR for the next decade.
Destroyers: The huge, futuristic new destroyer Zumwalt will emerge this summer from Bath Iron Works to begin sea trials, giving everyone the best look yet at the high-tech ship's unique tumblehome hull and stark profile. The ship should be turned over to the Navy in the fall.
Small Combatants: The last frigates will be retired by September, leaving the littoral combat ship as the most significant smaller warship. The LCS program should have a banner year: The Fort Worth will operate from Singapore throughout 2015 and new deliveries will double the four-ship LCS fleet by the end of the year. The Navy will also spend the year refining — and explaining — the modified LCS concept.
New Ships, Weapons: The first built-for-the-purpose Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) will begin operations, allowing the fleet to work with a new type of ship able to support a variety of operational concepts. Experiments will continue with joint high speed vessels as more become available, and both JHSVs and the interim AFSB Ponce will test new weapons, including rail guns and lasers.
Unmanned, Carrier-based Jets: The future of the US Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program is in limbo, awaiting studies ordered by Congress and the Pentagon over requirements. At issue: Is this primarily a strike aircraft or another ISR asset? The issue is further compounded by cultural and philosophical questions about the need for a pilot in a carrier-based jet. Don't hold your breath waiting for a decision.
Procurement Costs, SSBN(X): The fabulously expensive — over $100 billion by several estimates — SSBN(X) Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarine comes into near-term planning view with the 2016 budget submission. The first of the ships is to be ordered in 2021, and anyone connected with Navy shipbuilding is worried about the program's effect on the rest of naval procurement. At issue: whether to pay for the subs out of the normal shipbuilding budget or create a dedicated funding path. Little is expected to be decided this year, but the debate will certainly go on.
Leadership: 2015 marks the final year for Adm. Jon Greenert's time as chief of naval operations, and a successor should be named in midyear. The age old question: Will the new CNO be a submariner, like Greenert, a surface warfare officer or an aviator? Or from another community? Place your bets.
Any Navy four-star is a possibility and there are roughly a dozen active today.
Observers see three primary front-runners for the top job:
■Adm. Mark Ferguson, a surface warfare officer, leads Naval Forces Europe and Naval Forces Africa. He also served three tours in Washington as chief of legislative affairs, chief of naval personnel and vice chief of naval operations.
■Adm. Bill Gortney, an aviator, took over Northern Command Dec. 5 after vacating his position as the fleet's top boss at Fleet Forces Command. He would be the first aviator CNO in 15 years.
■Adm. Michelle Howard, a surface warfare officer, is vice chief of naval operations. She would be the first woman and first black service chief.
Other possible contenders are Adm. Harry Harris, who has been tapped to lead US Pacific Command; Adm. Cecil Haney, head of Strategic Command; Adm. John Richardson, head of Naval Reactors; Adm. Samuel Locklear, the current PACOM boss, although he could also be a candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Cutter: The Coast Guard will choose which of three contenders will build the offshore patrol cutter, the largest US government shipbuilding contract now up for bid. At stake is a potentially $10.5 billion program to build 25 medium-endurance cutters.
Chief of Staff: The US Army will get a new chief of staff in 2015 as Gen. Ray Odierno completes his four-year tenure in September.
Among the possible candidates:
■ Gen. Daniel Allyn, the vice chief of staff, a position that traditionally has been a stepping stone to the chief's office. As the officer in charge of day-to-day operations, Allyn has intimate knowledge of the Army's inner workings.
■Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commanding general of US Army Pacific. Brooks, a former aide-de-camp to the vice chief of staff and Army chief of public affairs, has led USARPAC since July 2013.
■Gen. John Campbell, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Campbell, former vice chief of staff, has extensive combat experience as well as knowledge of the Army, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.
■Gen. David Perkins, the commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command. Perkins has spearheaded many key Army efforts, including developing the new operating concept, rewriting Army doctrine, and leading the study and analysis to determine what the future Army should look like.
Army Undersecretary: US Army Undersecretary Brad Carson, a former Oklahoma congressman and Army general counsel, is someone to watch — if you can get him to stand still. In a few months, he visited Afghanistan, Belgium, Germany, Kuwait, Romania, South Korea and domestic bases from Alabama to Alaska.
But Carson runs a regular forum at the Pentagon called the Army Management Action Group, a deep dive into the Army's priorities after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Carson said the next year would be spent gathering input from senior Army leaders to implement a phased 25 percent cut for headquarters units.
Joint Light Tactical Vehicle: The US Army has set a Feb. 10 deadline for proposals for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program from contenders AM General, Lockheed Martin and Oshkosh Defense.
A Milestone C production decision for a single vendor is expected Oct. 1.
Under the award, 17,000 JLTVs would be produced over eight years, as the military ultimately pursues 50,000 JLTVs for the Army and 5,500 for the Marine Corps.
Armored Multipurpose Vehicle: The US Army will report to Congress on Jan. 30 about whether certain variants of the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle (AMPV), due to replace the M113 infantry carriers, could include wheeled platforms.
General Dynamics Land Systems pulled out of the competition, claiming the service's mobility requirements all but excluded wheeled vehicles.
Rival BAE Systems has offered a modified version of its tracked M2 Bradley.
The Army plans to buy 2,907 AMPVs at a total cost of $10.2 billion.
John T. Bennett, Christopher P. Cavas, Joe Gould, Paul McLeary and Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.