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The Pentagon's New Defense Budget Is Going Long on War Foreplay

The US military is shifting from its "Global War on Terror" after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it needs another decade to become really confident that it can defeat a major competitor like Russia or China in a war.

by Ryan Faith
Feb 11 2016, 5:25pm

Tank gunner greasing up the main gun tube prior to training exercise. (Photo via Flickr)

The proposed US defense budget for fiscal year 2017 has been released into the wild, capping a week of speeches, talks, and announcements by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. The big-ass $582.7 billion allotment is just about the same size as last year's budget, differing primarily due to a 1.6 percent pay jump for military personnel. But instead of making waves the traditional Pentagon way — adding expensive new programs — this budget changes things up by shifting priorities.

Defense budgets, like other giant steaming piles of government accounting, are in most cases pretty boring to anyone except the most painfully dedicated policy wonks. Last year, I didn't even cover the defense budget; it just wasn't that exciting.

This year's budget is a different beast altogether, and brings all manner of hints about the Department of Defense's new direction. Carter is pushing a lot of changes in a lot of different areas very quickly, shortcutting what would normally be years of passionate yammering.

The US military's entanglements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria have put the defense establishment on track for one of its routine existential debates. After every drawn-out conflict like the Korean war, the Vietnam war, and now the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US military frets that it's in no condition to go 10 rounds with a fully rested heavyweight like Russia or China. Its competitors have meanwhile steadily improved their technology, eroding the customary US technological edge. Now (as before) the external threats have gotten bigger and scarier while the ability to counter those threats has been seriously depleted.

Related: The Pentagon Dodged a Bullet Thanks to the US Budget Deal

The domestic political response to this usually involves resurrecting age-old debates about quality vs. quantity, reliability vs. capability, and so on. It seems like just about every talking point and applause line from the last postwar cycle will be recycled as the establishment grinds through yet another big conversation about the US military and what the hell to do with it.

This time around the debate has kind of stalled because of the lingering battles against the Islamic State group and the Taliban. So between now and the next administration (which will likely bring a new defense secretary), Carter is trying to get ahead of the curve on shepherding the DoD through its regularly scheduled postbellum blues — and much of that effort is seen in this year's DoD budget and rollout effort.

One aspect of Carter's budget teaser tour over the last week deserves special attention: he regularly revealed previously classified weapons programs. B-52 bombers are being modified to become "arsenal planes" carrying scads of missiles for targeting by other aircraft. The UCLASS, the Navy's stealthy deep-strike drone, has morphed into a tanker with sensors, communications relay, and limited attack capability. The Navy will also be doing a lot with long-distance, autonomous underwater drones.

Carter mentioned drone swarms that be launched at nearly the speed of sound to attack targets, and spoke of a January 2016 test of the SM-6 missile against surface ships, though the weapon is normally deployed against aircraft and other missiles.

The Pentagon has more or less quit the post-9/11 'Global War on Terror' as we know it, demoting the fight from an all-encompassing battle to something closer to the management of a virulent disease.

As DoD head honcho, Carter has the authority to decide what projects within his department are declassified, but spilling the beans on this stuff is pretty unusual. More than a few senior Pentagon officials greeted Carter's initial rollout speeches with surprise and incredulity — "He went and talked about that program in public?" That said, some of the programs he mentioned have been publicly floated (though not widely discussed) for a few years, while other concepts are reboots of ideas that have circulated for decades. So not all the programs that Carter made public were the deepest and darkest.

Carter might have spilled the beans about all these classified programs for a couple of reasons. It could be that he meant to generate buzz for his domestic audience by showing a little leg. Perhaps he also intended to send a message to Russia and China. Either way, he clammed up after a few speeches, reverting to more conventional remarks like, "I can't describe everything we saw today. But that's actually a sign. We like to surprise people. And so some of our opponents will find themselves surprised when this stuff gets into the field, which is going to be very soon."

Whether being direct or cagey, Carter's messaging effort dovetails nicely with his instructions to his staff in setting budget priorities.

Watch Shane Smith Interviews Ashton Carter: The VICE News Interview

To start, the Pentagon sees itself facing strategic challenges grouped into three threat levels. Russia and China are the heavyweight competitors in the first tier, followed by the middleweight contenders North Korea and Iran. The third tier involves fighting radical groups like IS and al Qaeda. As the overall global security environment has shifted, this roster of threats has been pretty consistent, as has been the US military's aim: it wants to be able to fight two separate wars at the same time.

While discussing these challenges with the media, Deputy Secretary Bob Work uttered an important line: "The campaign against global terrorist networks will be an enduring condition for much of the next 25 years and we have to be prepared to monitor it constantly, respond to and treat it when necessary."

It suggests that the Pentagon has more or less quit the post-9/11 "Global War on Terror" as we know it, demoting the fight from an all-encompassing battle to something closer to the management of a virulent disease. The idea is to treat terrorism like a recurring medical issue, with preventative measures to avoid outbreaks, and campaigns to roll back an outbreak once it occurs.

The armed services say they will need a decade or so before they're really confident that they can defeat a major competitor like Russia or China in a war.

During the budget presentations, representatives from the various services didn't devote a lot of time to IS, talking instead about fighting a "high-intensity, full-spectrum" conflict against a peer competitor. Unless and until the US military hears any differently, it's calling its fights in Iraq and Afghanistan mostly over, allowing it to focus on the bigger challenge of not getting a complete beatdown by Russia or China in a potential large-scale war.

Based on this assessment of threats, Carter gave his planners three main directives: innovate the heck out of stuff, strengthen conventional deterrence, and balance spending priorities for each.

At a basic level, the matter of innovation means developing new combat strategies, new technologies, and improving the way the Pentagon is actually administered. That's seems simple enough until you consider the rest of the thinking behind the new DoD budget.

Carter's second directive — strengthening conventional deterrence — fits in with his pre-rollout strategy of revealing details about new weapons programs. When taken together with classic deterrence signaling, like pushing for coverage of major military exercises and sending ships through contested waters in the South China Sea, it's reasonable to assume that deterrence is a high priority.

It's hard to say whether this is because the spooks and fortune tellers are getting edgy about specific threats, or if it's meant to ward off threats while the US military rebuilds. Either way, the DoD clearly wants Russia and China to know that it can hold its own if push comes to shove today.

Related: The US Army's Top General Points a Spear at Russia

In balancing different spending priorities, Carter directed the armed services to focus on the "shape, not the size" of their force; if they have the right technology and training in place, the size of the force can be adjusted as needed.

This "shape not size" directive is about balancing spending on what the Pentagon calls capabilities, size, and readiness. The first refers to an expansion and innovation of a force's ability to handle new missions and employ new technologies, while size concerns its numerical capacity to undertake more missions in more places. "Readiness" means preparing for expanded capabilities and size to actually go do their thing — like foreplay for war. It involves learning new skills and keeping current, making sure all the equipment runs and is maintained properly, and that all your people and gear are organized to be deployed.

But spending money and time on being able to fight right this instant can come at the expense of getting newer gear or more of what you already have.

For the most part, the Army is readjusting by sacrificing size and deferring modernization to ensure current readiness. The question is whether it's focusing so much time and money on missions today (like deterring Russia) that it won't be able to do its job effectively a few years from now. Other things being equal, the Army figures it'll need about a decade of work to be confident that it can defeat a major Russian or Chinese force.

The Navy's problems come from deploying its ships too often and for too long. Because it's been running its ships longer, harder, and more often, the Navy has been skipping or deferring maintenance and training; basically wearing out ships and crews. But it's hard to know when and how this will all come crashing to a halt. It's like skipping meals and staying up all night for final exams; you can do it for a while, but it'll catch up with you.

The Marines have a bit of an all-of-the-above approach. They're stretching existing forces, trying to modernize what they must, and do new things (like seabasing) when and where possible. But the main goal for the Marines is "returning to their amphibious roots" — meaning they have a lot of work to do to get back up to speed on their core competency of invading attractive oceanfront property.

Related: Here's What's Next for the Future of Amphibious Warfare

The Air Force's budget juggling act is mostly about choosing between new aircraft and keeping older planes in the air. It's easier to change the number of new planes being bought than it is to fuss with a lot of other programs, so short-term changes in purchase quantities are a go-to for USAF budget fixes. But that quick fix comes at the expense of keeping older, more beaten-up aircraft in the sky longer.

The long and short of it is that for years the US has been using its military at a slightly faster pace than the DoD has been able to replenish it. But the Pentagon is now telling the world that fighting IS and all their like-minded nutjob brethren is going to have to be more of a part-time hobby rather than a full-time vocation. Right now, they've got more important strategic considerations to worry about — like sizing up Russia and China.

In various ways with bunches of caveats, the armed services say they will need a decade or so before they're really confident that they can defeat a major competitor like Russia or China in a war. The new defense budget is trying to bridge that decade-long gap before the US is really, truly ready to fight at its weight class. That is why Carter has spent time pointing out that the US military will have a lot of neat new toys in very short order while signaling to Russia and China that the US can still put up enough of a fight to make starting a war a bad idea.

Now the question is how quickly the US can rebuild its military, and whether someone will call the Pentagon's bluff before then.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr

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