Washington Watch

Feb. 1, 2012

A Postwar Defense Strategy

President Barack Obama rolled out a new national security strategy in January meant to guide the force against the threats the US will confront in the coming decade.

This is a “moment of transition,” Obama said at a Pentagon press conference on Jan. 5. Flanked by top defense leaders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he argued that even without the financial crisis gripping Washington—which will drive the defense budget down collectively by at least $487 billion through 2021—the end of the war in Iraq, the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, and international developments such as the “Arab Spring” would have demanded a strategic reassessment anyway.

The new strategy, Obama said, will focus on the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. The Army and Marine Corps will no longer be sized for long-term “stability operations” and will shrink by tens of thousands starting in 2015, but there will be modest increases in some capabilities deemed more suitable for the future, such as special operations forces.

The US military will be “leaner,” Obama said, adding however that US strength also depends on its economic health, and that means “putting our fiscal house in order.”

The new strategy doesn’t abandon the concept that the US must be able to fight more than one war at a time, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta insisted.

New conditions demand “flexibility to shift and deploy forces to be able to fight and defeat any enemy anywhere,” Panetta said. “How we defeat the enemy may very well vary across conflicts. But make no mistake, we will have the capability to confront and defeat more than one adversary at a time.” Directing comments at Iran and North Korea, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey warned, “We can and will always be able to do more than one thing at a time. … Wherever we are confronted, and in whatever sequence, we will win.”

Panetta reiterated his pledge that the US military will not become a “hollow force” and readiness will be protected.

Obama said some other functional areas emphasized in the new strategy include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber capabilities, and the ability to defeat anti-access capabilities.

The text of “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century”—a mere eight pages—also specifically calls out the need for a “new stealth bomber.”

The outgoing defense policy undersecretary Michele Flournoy said she could envision the US reducing its nuclear stockpile, and Obama said the US would divest itself of “outdated Cold War-era systems,” but the defense team resolutely avoided giving any program specifics, deferring to the release of the 2013 defense budget.

Nevertheless, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter admitted that every category of defense spending will see “major changes” and that “includes modernization.”

Panetta said the pace and timing of changes will be organized “in such a way that they can surge, regenerate, and mobilize capabilities needed for any contingency.” He said hallmarks of the strategy and its implementation will be “reversibility and the ability to quickly mobilize.”

Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. said the reversibility of the changes was a central element in the strategy, because “we could get this wrong.”

Similarly, Carter said the condition of the defense industrial base and its ability to reconstitute will be an important consideration.

Panetta said the cuts in the 2013 budget are as far as the Pentagon can go without suffering real damage. He urged Congress not to “fail” in agreeing on overall deficit reduction so that sequestrations that would strip a further half-trillion dollars from defense are not enacted. He also said that throughout the strategy, the Pentagon will “keep faith” with uniformed people and continue to take care of them and their families.

Closing the Wichita Line, Man

Boeing announced in early January it will close its sprawling Wichita, Kan., facilities by the end of next year, shocking and infuriating state lawmakers who had worked to secure the KC-46 tanker contract for Boeing on the assumption the airplane would be assembled there.

Instead of 7,500 new KC-46 jobs coming to Wichita, 2,160 jobs on a variety of programs will leave.

Boeing Defense, Space, and Security Vice President Mark Bass, who runs the unit’s maintenance, modifications, and upgrades division, said in a press conference that the company’s flight is being driven entirely by the need to cut costs. Work on other Boeing programs at the facility, such as on the B-52, is “winding down,” Bass said, and given the deep budget reductions coming to defense, there is little prospect of finding new work for the facility.

As those other programs decline, moreover, the overhead expense of a 97-building, two-million-square-foot plant would be tacked onto the KC-46. That cost would “become unaffordable for our customer,” Bass said. It will also be a bit cheaper to do Wichita’s planned KC-46 work in Puget Sound, Wash., instead, because that plant is close to Seattle, where the “green” 767 airframes that are the basis of the KC-46 will be built. Wichita was supposed to do “finishing and delivery” of the tankers.

Bass also frankly admitted “the cost of labor” is too high in Wichita—it’s a union shop—and carrying the overhead of the plant makes Boeing uncompetitive with other companies that only have “two hangars and an office building.” Other states have also offered “incentives” to companies that move in, he said.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) released a statement on the heels of Boeing’s announcement, expressing his anger over an apparent bait-and-switch.

“Boeing’s chairman sat in my office 22 months ago during that battle and promised me” that if the tanker competition were reopened and the Chicago-based aviation and defense giant won, “Boeing would stay in Wichita,” Roberts said. Then-Sen. (now Kansas Governor) Sam Brownback (R) and then-Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) were also in the meeting, Roberts said. Boeing repeated its pledge to stay in Wichita as recently as February 2011, when it won the tanker work, Roberts added.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) released a statement expressing his “outrage” over the move and said he’ll “strongly urge” Boeing to reconsider its plans. Rep. Michael Pompeo (R-Kan.) said he’s asked for meetings with Boeing executives to get more fulsome explanations. Brownback released a statement expressing his disappointment and pledging he’ll work to bring new jobs to the “world class” aviation facilities in Wichita.

The decision to leave Wichita was under review at Boeing for months but wasn’t made public until Dec. 30, Bass asserted.

Boeing’s remaining B-52 work will move to its facilities in Oklahoma City, where Tinker Air Force Base does programmed depot maintenance on the bomber. Other work will be done in San Antonio.

Bass said because Boeing has some 470 suppliers in the state making parts for its in-demand airliners, the company will actually spend $3.2 billion per year in Kansas—more than it spends there now.

One of Our Drones is Missing

A top-secret, stealthy Air Force RQ-170 Sentinel remotely piloted aircraft crashed in Iran in early December and was soon paraded on international TV as a prize of war. The Air Force, however, insists that Iran’s capture of the aircraft will not derail its plans for current or upcoming stealth aircraft.

The incident was reminiscent of when Russia shot down a U-2 spyplane in 1960. In response to Iran’s claims of having hacked an intruding drone’s controls and bringing it down intact, the Air Force at first cautiously admitted only to having lost a remotely piloted aircraft in the Afghan-Iran border region. Soon, however, Iran was displaying the damaged aircraft—festooned with anti-American slogans—on its state television, much like Russia’s surprise revelation that the U-2’s pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been captured alive.

President Obama asked for return of the hardware, but Iran refused.

The Air Force had previously only barely acknowledged the aircraft. When unofficial photos of the airplane circulated on the Internet several years ago, the service refused to release any information about its mission or capabilities—as it continues to do—except to confirm that it was indeed a USAF asset and was built by Lockheed Martin.

Air Force Magazine asked USAF if the compromise of the RQ-170’s secrets would now require a rethink of the service’s plans for its next generation bomber, given USAF plans to use off-the-shelf stealth technology on the new aircraft to keep costs down and shorten the development cycle.

“Plans for the new bomber are unchanged,” an Air Force spokesman said. While USAF would not comment directly on what Iran could learn from the RQ-170, the spokesman noted that it took about 15 years for the B-2 and F-22 “to go from program start to fielding” and suggested it will likely take a “near peer”—read China or Russia—a long time to develop stealth technology and fully exploit its capabilities.

“The employment of [low observables] is very complicated and the US maintains a superior advantage in the tactics, training, and maintenance” of stealth systems, the spokesman said.

On the new bomber, “using proven technologies will help to maintain program emphasis on affordability and provide senior leadership information needed to make the capability and cost tradeoffs to hold procurement unit costs at estimated target.” The Air Force’s plans to deliver a new bomber by the mid-2020s remain unchanged, he said.

USAF likewise doesn’t think having the RQ-170 fall into hostile hands will upset the service’s air superiority plans, which hinge on the stealthy F-22 and F-35, both also manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

“Any operational assessment of a potential adversary would be speculative,” the spokesman stated, “but we are confident in our ability to retain the initiative with our fifth generation fighters, our superior training, and the advanced TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] that our airmen have honed over the past several decades.”

Air Force officials said privately the RQ-170 loss could be tolerated. One senior USAF official noted that MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers have been lost periodically in combat conditions, so it was expected that a Sentinel, too, could eventually go down in an accident.

“This is not the end of the world,” the official said. He also discounted Iran’s claims that it had used electronic warfare or cyber attack to bring down the RQ-170. Though he did not confirm this scenario, he said it was “possible” a data link failed and the aircraft ran out of fuel waiting to restore contact with its operators.