Washington Watch

Feb. 1, 2011

Flat Budgets Ahead

The Pentagon’s budget request for Fiscal 2012 will be $553 billion—less than the amount projected for 2012 in last year’s budget, but still representing about three percent real growth over the 2011 continuing resolution. However, in real terms, the Pentagon budget is expected to flatten gradually over the next five years until it rises only at the rate of inflation in Fiscal 2015 and 2016.

The projection was announced by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates Jan. 6. Although the detailed budget rollout is not expected until the middle of this month or early next, Gates called the event to explain how the Pentagon had answered his charge to find $100 billion worth of savings from service overhead functions.

Last summer, Gates promised the services they could translate the savings into spending on needed modernization projects, and in January explained what they would be spending the money on.

He also meant to pre-empt congressional enthusiasm for using defense as a bill payer in the deep federal budget cuts expected this year.

The Pentagon budget will be some $78 billion smaller over the next five years than it would have been under last year’s plan, but Gates warned Congress not to cut more deeply.

“In recent weeks, there have been calls from various quarters for major reductions in defense spending, to include substantial cuts in modernization, force structure, troop levels, and overseas bases. I consider such proposals risky at best and potentially calamitous,” Gates asserted. The US, he said, continues to play a vital role in providing stability and fostering political freedom around the world, and needs a healthy military to back that up.

“We shrink from our global security responsibilities at our peril, as retrenchment brought about by shortsighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later—indeed, as they always have in the past.” Drastic cuts in US military strength, such as after World War I, “make armed conflict all the more likely … with an unacceptably high cost in American blood and treasure,” Gates said.

The budget proposal for 2012, Gates insisted, “represents, in my view, the minimum level of defense spending that is necessary, given the complex and unpredictable array of security challenges the United States faces around the globe.”

Counting federal pay freezes, DOD-wide overhead reductions, and other changes, including shifts in economic assumptions and troop reductions, the Pentagon actually came up with about $180 billion worth of savings. Gates said some of that—about $28 billion—will have to be spent on “must pay” bills arising from the growing costs of doing business.

“These costs include health care, pay and housing allowances, sustainment of weapon systems, depot maintenance, base support, and flight hours and other training,” Gates explained.

“Frankly, using these savings in this way was not my original intent or preference, but we have little choice … and better to confront [these costs] now than through raiding investment accounts later.”

Describing actual cuts that will appear in the budget, Gates said he’s canceling a Marine Corps amphibious vehicle, downsizing the Army and Marine Corps starting in 2015, and planning to overhaul Tricare to make it more affordable.

He also put the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B—the variant to be used by the Marine Corps—on a two-year “probation.” If its schedule and design problems can’t be fixed by then, he’ll recommend terminating that variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. To offset the shortfall in fighters, he’s added about 40 more F/A-18 Super Hornets to the Navy’s budget.

The Air Force’s Share

The Air Force came up with about $34 billion worth of overhead savings as its share of Gates’ charge to find funds that could be better applied to modernization accounts.

Without supplying details, Gates said USAF will consolidate two air operations centers in the US and two in Europe; consolidate three numbered air forces into their respective commands; reduce fuel costs in Air Mobility Command by $500 million; improve depot maintenance and sustainment processes; and reduce the cost of communications infrastructure by 25 percent. Other measures will be taken, but Gates did not elaborate.

He also said that 80 of 900 general officer billets across the services will be eliminated, and more still will be downgraded. One such change will be the conversion of the job of commander, US Air Forces in Europe, from a four-star to a three-star job.

Spending the Savings

In exchange for its streamlining efforts, the Air Force will get to proceed with some critical modernization programs.

First up, Gates ended suspense about USAF’s long-range strike situation and said the service will be allowed to start a new bomber program.

This “major area of new investment” will yield a “new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber … which will have the option of being remotely piloted.” Gates said the aircraft will be designed and developed “using proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity.”

Though he was imprecise about the timing of the project— saying it is “important that we begin … now” and yield an operational capability “before the current aging fleet goes out of service”—Gates said the portfolio of deep-strike capability will be a “high priority” investment area, “given the anti-access challenges our military faces.”

Other things the Air Force will spend its savings on are:

• Additional copies of the “most advanced” MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft

• Moving “essential” intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance programs from the war budget to the permanent base budget

• Increasing procurement of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles to ensure access to space and sustain the industrial base in this area

• Active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for the F-15 fleet

• More F-35 flight simulators

The choice to buy more Reapers is surprising, given Air Force statements that it will have more than enough for all conceivable missions once it achieves 65 “orbits” and fields the Gorgon Stare system, which will vastly expand the capability of the aircraft. The requirement for Reapers is expected to diminish as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. The Air Force has said it planned to redeploy to other commands Reapers freed up by the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Gates said that the Air Force conventional takeoff version of the JSF—the F-35A—and the carrier version, the F-35C, are “proceeding satisfactorily,” and will continue to have “a central place in the future of US military aviation.”

Nevertheless, Gates is slowing the program somewhat to reduce concurrency between the flight-test program and production, against the possibility that major rework would be needed on produced aircraft if problems are found in development. To make up the lost time, the Pentagon plans to increase the F-35 production rate by 50 percent beginning in Fiscal 2013, which will also improve production efficiency.

Made—Stealthily—in China

China revealed a flight test of a stealth-type aircraft on Jan. 11, marking the third nation—after the US and Russia—to develop such technology. The development, drawing excited speculation in aerospace circles, was greeted by the Pentagon largely with a public shrug.

The aircraft, believed to be called the Chengdu J-20, was exposed in a series of amateur images that began circulating on the Internet in late December.

The Pentagon’s first comment, through a spokesman, was to point out that China’s efforts to develop “advanced aircraft” had already been mentioned in last summer’s multiagency report about China’s military power. However, that report had not said anything about stealth. The spokesman declined to go further, saying the Pentagon doesn’t discuss intelligence.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in mid-2009, predicted that in 2020, the US would field some 1,200 “fifth generation” combat aircraft, but China would have fielded “zero.” Gates made the remarks in justification of his decision to terminate the F-22 at just 187 aircraft, roughly half the long-standing Air Force requirement.

Shortly after the photos became public, Gates, enroute to China for an official visit in January, told reporters, “We knew they were working on a stealth aircraft,” but admitted “they may be somewhat further ahead in the development of that aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted.”

He continued, “I never said … that their stealth aircraft didn’t matter. What I said was that in 2020 or 2025, that there would still be a vast disparity in the number of deployed fifth generation aircraft” between the US and any other country. “I continue to stand by that statement,” despite further stretch-outs of the F-35 program.

He acknowledged that the development of capabilities such as the Chinese stealth fighter are “matters of concern,” but said they have been addressed with countermeasures to “anti-access programs” in the upcoming 2012 budget.

However, Gates hopes “the need for some of these capabilities is reduced” through a “strategic dialogue” with China.

Intelligence analysts for the Navy, asked to assess the images, noted that China has said it is developing “a next generation fighter that will have signature reduction and supercruise performance.” While the photos seemed “to be this aircraft,” they don’t expect it “to be operationally fielded for some time.”

The J-20 “was likely designed to counter US F-22 and F-35 capabilities, and the employment of this fighter in numbers will be both a qualitative and quantitative improvement” in the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Navy analysts said.

The front of the aircraft bears strong resemblance to US designs, with a nose and canopy suggestive of the F-22 and air intakes reminiscent of those on the F-35. The rear of the aircraft, however, has standard round exhaust nozzles, which are not stealthy, suggesting design priority was given to low observability in the forward quarter.

At an apparent length of more than 70 feet, the J-20 appears to be designed for speed, stealth, and range. It may not be a true air superiority fighter at all, but more of an intermediate-size attack aircraft akin to USAF’s own retired F-111. A pure air superiority stealth design, said to be called the J-12, has long been rumored under development by Shenyang, China’s other fighter maker.

Vice Adm. David J. Dorsett, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance and head of Navy intelligence, told defense reporters in early January that while the J-20 is “not a surprise,” US intelligence has a track record of misjudging the speed with which China can develop new technologies.

“The last several years, … we have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery and IOC [initial operational capability] of Chinese technology weapon systems,” Dorsett said.

He also said it’s unclear how much development time is ahead before China has a functional stealth aircraft.

“Integrating that into a combat environment is going to take some time,” he noted.