Pentagon enters period of tough choices, despite high budgets

Pentagon enters period of tough choices, despite high budgets

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A member assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2 conducts military dive operations off the East Coast of the United States. Naval Special Warfare (NSW) invests in the training and development of sustainable capabilities, capacity and concepts to sharpen the competitive advantage of U.S. Navy Special Operation Forces (SOF). (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jayme Pastoric)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has chosen capability over capacity in how it is aligning the military — all the while facing “unrelenting operational demands” that are stressing the services, an analysis released Tuesday said.

The administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy continues to stress renewed readiness and increased modernization to prepare for long-term competition with China and Russia, shifting away from the counter-terrorism mode that has domineered Pentagon operations since 2001.

However, because of fine budget growth, the future poses two risks to the administration’s plans, according to the analysis released by Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private institution focusing on international public policy issues.

“The lack of real growth in future budgets will hamper the launching of further initiatives; and a softening of public, and then political, support could undermine both budgets and an engagement strategy,” the CSIS study warned.

The CSIS analysis presents an overall perspective on the strategic and budget context, the military services, special operations forces, Pentagon civilians and contractors, and non-Defense Department national security organizations. Subsequent papers are to be released on a weekly basis taking a deeper look at each of these components of the fiscal year 2020 budget.

“The overall theme of this year’s report is the struggle to align forces and strategy because of budget tradeoffs that even defense buildups must make, unrelenting operational demands that stress personnel and prevent force reductions, and legacy programs whose smooth operations and strong constituencies inhibit rapid change,” CSIS Senior Adviser Mark Cancian said in an interview with TMN.

The report shows that three areas are stressing the Army:

  • The first is getting clear guidance  on great power conflicts with Russia and China. “That means a force equipped with advanced, and likely very expensive, technologies, paid for by cuts to structure, if necessary,” the report said.
  • The second is the day-to-day demand for forces to deploy to Afghanistan, Europe and elsewhere. “That implies a larger force that may not need the most advanced technologies,” the report said.
  • The third is difficulties in recruiting and retention. “Because structure—the total number of soldiers required—remains essentially unchanged, the Army will face challenges to avoid hollowness,” the report said.

The Navy feels the stress mostly because of the “high demands for its forces in day-to-day operations and the long lead times and high capital costs for its weapon systems,” CSIS said.

While doing well in keeping pace and staying modern in surface and subsurface forces, naval aviation has been slow to field unmanned aerial vehicles and remains focused on manned platforms. It also faces ever-higher costs to maintain its aircraft inventory, CSIS said.

The Marines are actually a larger force now than they were before 2001, a rarity, and “that has allowed it to maintain its traditional ground and aviation units and create new units for cyber and information warfare,” CSIS determined.

“However, since the Marine Corps has decided not to grow in the future, focusing instead on readiness and modernization, and that creates a tension between creating additional new capabilities and maintaining traditional capabilities,” CSIS said.

“The lack of growth also exacerbates a tension in structure and training between what is needed for the routine forward deployment of Marine air ground task forces and the needs of a high-end major conflict,” CSIS said. “The former forces are light, trained for crisis response missions and peacetime engagement, and in high demand by combatant commanders. The latter are heavier, trained for intense combat, and the focus of the new strategy.”

The Air Force is finding the challenge to maintain and expand existing structure. “The need to improve readiness has caused it to put funding into increasing manpower over the last several years,” CSIS said.

For Special Forces, three themes continue, CSIS said: “gradual force growth, to 66,559 (nearly the size of the British Army, 78,400); dependence on funding beyond the traditional budget that is in the special fund for overseas fundng, at 39 percent, much higher than the department’s overall rate of 9 percent; and increasing organizational independence (so it looks even more like a separate service,)” CSIS said.

“Stress on the force, though continuing, appears to have eased. Unfortunately, ethical misconduct has emerged as a new and disturbing theme as a result of a series of high-visibility incidents,” CSIS said.

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