Washington Watch

June 1, 2011

The 400 Blows

As part of an effort to cut more than $4 trillion from the federal budget in 12 years, President Obama announced in April a goal of reducing defense spending over the same period by $400 billion. The move could compel the services to shed some missions they now consider core to their function.

The goal amounts to 10 percent of the overall deficit reduction target, but is about a third of the $1.3 trillion in cuts that would come from discretionary spending—i.e., nonentitlement programs. The reductions would be over and above any savings resulting from the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The time period for reductions would extend six years beyond a possible Obama Administration second term, however.

A fact sheet on the proposals, released by the White House, said Obama aims to hold “growth in base security spending below inflation, while ensuring our capacity to meet our national security responsibilities.” He will decide on what cuts to make after consulting with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House said. According to the fact sheet, Gates has “shown over the last two years that there is substantial waste and duplication in our security budget that we can and should eliminate.”

In an April press conference, Gates said, “There are those who argue that if you funded the department at roughly inflation for the next 12 years, that you could find this money. That may well be true.”

However, costs for what he called “big-ticket items” in Pentagon must-spend categories, such as health care and fuel, are rising at well beyond standard inflation rates. So are personnel compensation rates. Assuming no freeze in military compensation or a radical downsizing of the armed forces, an increasing amount of a fixed budget will go to personnel costs, demanding reductions in other areas, like programs or force structure.

Last fall, when a bipartisan budget-cutting commission suggested large cuts to the military, Gates opined that the proposal lacked any strategic underpinnings, and amounted to “math, not strategy.” In the April press conference, Gates said Obama’s proposal doesn’t warrant the same criticism because “it’s a target” and that “no specific budget decisions will be made until we’ve reviewed … these choices and options.”

The deficit panels proposed cutting deeply into modernization programs such as the F-35 fighter and Navy shipbuilding, but Gates insisted there are investments “we have to make,” for example, buying replacement aerial refueling tankers and surface ships that have reached their life expectancy.

“All elements of the [nuclear] triad need to be modernized,” Gates said. “You may have to make some choices there.”

Gates said he wants to frame the discussion of how to reduce defense costs “so that it’s not a math exercise, but so people understand the strategic and national security consequences of the decisions that they’re making … in stark terms.”

Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in the same press conference that decisions will have to be made about “what is it you want to be able to do, and then how much of it do you want to be able to do, which gets to quantities and capabilities.”

While Gates ruled out a “mini-QDR,” or Quadrennial Defense Review to rethink US military strategy, the Defense Secretary said he wants the services to translate what the latest QDR says into specific numbers of types of forces, with an eye toward what would happen “if you begin cutting off [a] mission—if you begin saying, ‘OK, what if you didn’t do this?’ ” One question might be, “What if you decided you didn’t need to be able to fight two regional conflicts at the same time; then what are the implications of that for the force?”

Gates has been dropping leaden hints to the services that they may well have to part with some cherished missions to live within the Pentagon’s means in the coming years.

A year ago, addressing the Navy League, Gates asked whether “the nation can really afford a Navy” with $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion aircraft carriers.

Gates chided the Air Force for putting too much emphasis on expensive programs, suggesting USAF seek the “80 percent solution” to its air combat requirements rather than “exquisite” capabilities that are seldom used.

The Army, Gates has said, may have to rethink its focus on heavy forces.

He has also questioned whether the Marine Corps’ amphibious landing mission is still relevant, and warned it could well shrink in size.

The New Sheriff in Town

The man who will have to implement the Pentagon austerity program is Leon E. Panetta, slated to take over as Defense Secretary from Robert M. Gates, who is retiring at the end of this month. Panetta is not seen as a defense hawk, and likely will not shy away from cutting more major programs if he feels it is necessary to balance the Pentagon’s thinner budget.

President Obama announced Panetta’s move from CIA director to defense chief in an April press conference. Obama likely chose Panetta for both his familiarity with military intelligence affairs and White House experience as both a budget czar and presidential chief of staff.

In accepting the new post from Obama, Panetta said his “Job 1 will be to ensure that we remain the strongest military power in the world, to protect that security that is so important to this country.”

However, Panetta added, “this is also a time for hard choices,” and like Gates, he will emphasize the need to “prevail in the conflicts in which we are now engaged” while being “strong and disciplined in applying our nation’s limited resources to defending America.” He pledged to be a “faithful advocate” for the troops.

Panetta is a former eight-term congressman from California who served President Bill Clinton first as budget director and later as his chief of staff, where he was given high marks for putting better organization to the top tier of that Administration. In the mid-1960s, he served a two-year stint in the Army as an intelligence officer. Initially a Republican, he served in the Nixon Administration as a civil rights official before switching parties and running for Congress.

Although his choice as CIA director raised some eyebrows, Panetta won praise as a steadying influence at the agency in the aftermath of charges that it tortured terrorism suspects. He got along well with Gates—who reportedly made numerous calls to congressional offices naming Panetta as his preferred successor—and with Dennis C. Blair and James R. Clapper Jr., the two Directors of National Intelligence with whom he had to coordinate.

In the recent mission that killed Osama bin Laden, Panetta was credited as being the “field marshal” who oversaw the operation. The mission was considered a CIA operation, but used US Navy special operators and Army helicopters, enabled by Air Force aerial and satellite reconnaissance assets.

Gates had also served as CIA chief before taking over at the Pentagon, and many Washington insiders said the national security leadership shuffle—which will also see Gen. David H. Petraeus take over at CIA in the fall—reflects an increasing pattern of overlap between the defense enterprise and that of national intelligence. However, Panetta is seen as more of a political figure than Gates, whose career was generally apolitical and bureaucratic. Both Gates and Panetta served on President George W. Bush’s Iraq Study Group, which urged Bush to withdraw from Iraq in 2008. Instead, Bush chose to boost the number of US troops in Iraq, which came to be known as the “surge.”

Panetta turns 73 this month, marking him as the oldest person ever nominated to be Defense Secretary.

Perhaps even more immediate than deciding how to adjust the Pentagon’s budget, Panetta will also have to choose a new slate of top uniformed officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in key command positions. Coming up for rotation are the jobs of Chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Chief of Naval Operations all in just the next few months. In 2012, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz’s term as Air Force Chief of Staff will be up as well.

Stealth Revealed

A secret stealth aircraft appears to have played a key role in the early May takedown of Osama bin Laden, as shown by photos of wreckage left behind by US troops.

During the raid, according to early information provided by US government officials, Navy SEALs rode into the bin Laden compound aboard two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. One of the aircraft experienced a malfunction or for some reason went down so hard it could not fly out again. No US troops were hurt, but they did their best to destroy the wreckage in the compound’s courtyard, leaving hardly recognizable charred remains. However, the SEALs did not destroy the helicopter’s tailboom, which broke across a wall and fell outside the compound.

The wreckage is clearly not from any previously acknowledged US aircraft.

With smooth surfaces lacking any fasteners or other radar-reflecting seams, the faceted empennage resembled features seen on the F-117 Nighthawk and other stealth aircraft. The tail rotor was semi-recessed behind a stepped, saucer-shaped housing that seemed intended to quiet its noise. Eyewitnesses to the raid reported being unaware that the aircraft were coming until they were almost directly overhead, and even then, local observers believed the helicopters were headed away from—not toward—the compound.

A gridded vent on top of the tailboom is diamond-shaped, echoing the fundamental design feature of stealthy aircraft. Other surfaces were canted and angled in a way suggestive of stealth considerations.

The tailboom’s appearance recalls the RAH-66 Comanche, a stealthy scout/attack helicopter the Army terminated in 2004 due to rising costs and changing Army aviation priorities.

According to government accounts, Pakistan was not alerted to the raid, presumably to prevent any bin Laden confederates in the Pakistani government from warning him. A quieted, stealth helicopter would be a logical vehicle with which to insert the SEAL team.

The secret helicopter marks the second stealthy aircraft known to be employed in the Afghanistan theater of operations. The first was the RQ-170 Sentinel, a smallish flying wing-shaped remotely piloted aircraft. The Sentinel was spotted and photographed at Kandahar Air Base by various observers, and the Air Force later acknowledged the RPA was one of its reconnaissance assets and that it was built by Lockheed Martin. Little more has been said about it.

Queries about the stealth helicopter were put to Boeing and Sikorsky, which jointly built the Comanche. They referred questions to US Special Operations Command, where a spokesman said that only the White House was authorized to speak about the raid. The White House declined comment.

A week after the raid, President Obama traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., to visit with the troops and congratulate special operators who performed the mission. Fort Campbell is the home not of the SEALs but the Army’s 160th Special Operations Air Regiment. It flies helicopters specially modified for unconventional warfare.