WASHINGTON — Years of kicking the can on modernization are finally coming due for the Pentagon at a time when the Biden administration faces major pressures to draw down the defense budget, creating a nasty situation across all branches of the military.
That’s the warning of a new report from Mackenzie Eaglen and Hallie Coyne of the American Enterprise Institute, who says the DoD had best prepare for the reality of the “Terrible ’20s” ahead.
Unlike many think-tank reports, the authors say up front that they will not offer a list of programs to cut. Instead, the report goes deep on the history, current status and future plans for a myriad of Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force programs to provide an “unvarnished” view for the Biden administration about modernization challenges ahead, and how the military has ended up in its current predicament.
“Policymakers and uniformed leaders are sleepwalking into strategic insolvency. If no action is taken, something will break and do so spectacularly,” the authors write. “There is no easy way out of this fiscal bind for the US military. Rather, now is the time for effective mitigation strategies, urgent worst-case scenario planning, hard choices, and political leadership.”
One notable statistic included in the report: the authors totaled 28 modernization programs that were cancelled between FY2002 and FY2012, as the department constantly shifted funds towards the ongoing war on terrorism efforts instead of towards modernization. Those programs included $81.415 billion in sunk costs, and while many of those programs did receive follow on efforts, the older programs “rarely significantly informed their successor programs.”
For example, the Air Force spent $290 million to start its E-10 program before it was cancelled; it’s follow on, a replacement for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) program, went for several years before being cancelled in 2018 in favor of the Advanced Battle Management System, still in its early days. That’s not just a sunk financial cost, but a situation where a modernization need was identified years ago but the service has yet to find an adequate solution.
Future modernization challenges are broken down by service, and by two time period: fiscal year 2021-2025, and fiscal year 2026-2031. And while it eschews programmatic suggestions, it does contain direct policy suggestions, including considerations of reduced mission sets, develop new ways of working with Congress, and making sure current modernization efforts have upgradability to avoid a future spike in modernization efforts.
“This report is intended to force a confrontation with the unvarnished reality of how much it will cost to modernize our armed forces to protect the United States’ security in an era of intensifying competition with peer competitors,” the authors conclude. “While reasonable people may disagree about the judgments and calculations included herein (which we welcome the opportunity to discuss), the macro-level trajectory of our military’s degrading comparative strength is indisputable.
“Time and money are no longer on our side; too much of both have been wasted already.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.