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Defense Cuts vs Military Flexibility

As the debate over the United States' estimated $14.3 trillion debt has come to a head, the question as to whether or not cuts would be made to the Department of Defense (DoD) has evolved to one of how deep those cuts will go. The 2011 defense budget topped out at $738 billion, after adding $159 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations and a $30 billion 2010 supplement to the baseline request of $549 billion--certainly a hefty price tag for the debt-ridden nation. What type of force structure those dollars buy, to match our national security strategy, is essential to the debate.

Back in April, President Obama spoke of a $400 billion cut over 12 years, while congressional leaders tossed around ideas including a cut of $800 billion over the next 10 years and Senator Coburn's "Back in Black" plan to cut $1 trillion. The "debt ceiling" deal calls for $350 billion in defense cuts over 10 years, with room for deeper cuts. Considering the economic times we face today, it's difficult to argue against these proposed cuts.

In a perfect world our leaders develop a strategy that identifies the desired end-state and national goals, guided by which the military then develops a force structure to match. Unfortunately, that's not the world in which we live. The U.S. employs a complex policy mechanism--supplemental appropriations are routinely added to support ongoing operations, while cuts are made to eliminate costly weapons systems, especially in a down economy.

One issue that gets lost in the discussion of cuts is the need to maintain flexibility in implementing our security strategy: the kind of flexibility that existing and future platforms, sometimes with redundant capabilities, enable our military to execute the required missions. However, opponents of these new advanced systems routinely portray them as too costly and technologically unnecessary against adversaries already over-matched.

A recent study of the 2012 defense budget by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments noted that the cost per flight hour has risen to $23,800 for the active Air Force. But this number tells only part of the story, as the author observes in the succeeding passage:

"One explanation for the difference in the rate of growth is that the Navy is flying its aircraft more frequently, planning nearly 50 percent more flight hours per airframe on average than the Air Force in FY 2012 base budget. Since FY 2001, the Air Force has cut the number of flight hours per airframe in the base budget by over 40 percent, causing its fixed overhead costs to be spread across fewer hours of flight and therefore increase the apparent cost per hour. The average age of aircraft in the Air Force inventory is also at its highest level ever, resulting in higher maintenance costs to keep these aircraft operational."

The average age of airframes is indeed at its highest point, but this explanation fails to account for other leading factors, such as flying the airframes long beyond their life expectancy while conducting continuous flight operations in Operations PROVIDE COMFORT and SOUTHERN/NORTHERN WATCH from 1991 to 2003, ENDURING/IRAQI FREEDOM (OEF/OIF) since 2003, and many others. The fact that our Air Force and Naval fighter aircraft were not designed to be flown in continuous combat operations, year after year, is neither here nor there. That our executive branch has been able to utilize these multiple, flexible airframes constantly for the past two decades, speaks volumes of the need to maintain that capability.

Airpower advocates may find it difficult to counter calls for cuts to the so-called "sexy" weapons platforms (Joint Strike Fighter, Stealth Bomber, Airborne Laser) or for reduced spending on the lower priority programs per Sen. Coburn's plan, especially given our economic conditions, the existing capabilities of our adversaries, and the growing efficacy of unmanned vehicles.

However, there is no foreseeable way to ease the number and type of missions placed on our aging, existing airframes. Unless we see a change in our grand strategy or level of international engagement, as well as some reassurance that our potential enemies are not growing an advanced system of defenses, then our national leadership needs a strategic vision to maintain flexibility as our airframes, ships, and land forces slowly deteriorate from exhaustive use.

Maintaining enough flexibility for our military to handle every new possible foreign policy course may be untenable for of a war-weary American public, but as Congress debates cuts to defense spending and force structure, maintaining some flexibility is vital to ensuring a military positioned to execute the missions presented by its civilian leaders.

Colonel Steven R. Charbonneau is a military professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and a 2011-12 Academic Fellows with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The views expressed here are his alone and do not reflect those of FDD, the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.

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