Fiscal Hazards Loom As Significant Threat to U.S. Military Capabilities

January 25, 2012
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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West 2012 Online Show Daily: Day 1

Quote of the day: “It’s going to be a very grim picture if that occurs—very grim.”—Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, USN, director, the Joint Staff, discussing proposed draconian defense budget cuts.

 Anyone who wants to know the future of U.S. national security should follow the money, to paraphrase a legendary political saying. However, this money is in the future: the next defense budget, and the burgeoning national debt. One may offer draconian cuts in the military, the other poses a national security threat of its own.

These points were emphasized by a range of speakers and panelists on the first day of West 2012, co-sponsored by AFCEA International and USNI. Being held January 24-26 in San Diego, California, the conference’s usual nautical theme this year has been supplanted by a broad look at the future of the military.

Virtually every speaker warned that if sequestration cuts are allowed to take place, the effect on the military would be devastating. If it is forced to cut $500 billion in addition to the planned $480 billion over 10 years, the military would suffer significant losses in capability. Its ability to carry out its missions probably would be permanently damaged.

 Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, USN, director, the Joint Staff, warns of a potential budgetary armageddon in his opening address at West 2012.
The dichotomy of budget cuts helping reduce a menacing debt was discussed by the event’s first speaker, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, USN, director, the Joint Staff. Adm. Gortney described the nation’s financial crisis as a “strategic vulnerability,” and he said the Defense Department must join the rest of the country in belt tightening.

The department will “do its part” to help bring fiscal order back to the nation’s budget, he added. However, the admiral warned of dire consequences if the mandatory budget cuts kick in. “It’s going to be a very grim picture if that occurs—very grim,” the admiral said. “I cannot predict what will happen after the elections. We will have to redo the strategy if that occurs,” he warned.

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adm. Mike Mullen, USN (Ret.), echoed Adm. Gortney’s warning. The military can manage the currently planned $480 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, he allowed, but the sequestration plan to axe another $500 billion “has a good chance of breaking us.” This budget crisis has been looming for nearly 10 years, but it is manageable if leaders focus on where to take risks. Calling the national debt “our number one security threat,” Adm. Mullen pointed out that the worse the debt, the smaller the Pentagon budget and the less likely the United States can deploy the forces it needs.

A panel looking at shipbuilding discussed budget measures that could ensure the Navy receives its needed ships. With shipbuilding constituting only about 10 percent of the Navy budget, cost savings in other areas may be necessary for the Navy to build the ships it needs to meet new strategic realities. In addition to those savings, if they are realized, the Navy also must practice smart shipbuilding to keep costs down and produce ships that can serve its needs for years to come.

Mike Petters, president and chief executive officer of Huntington Ingalls Industries, provided an industry perspective by noting that the more planners can get a shipbuilding program into a serial production run, the more likely the Navy can manage investments and risks as well as control the outcome. Requirements, funding and execution are all interrelated, he added. Vice Adm. Richard W. Hunt, USN, commander, naval surface forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, called for the Navy to place active lifecycle management up front. This includes fuel, spares and weapons, among others. Adm. Hunt also warned against overdoing requirements.

“We can’t take a second position seat to any adversary out there, but we have to know what is enough,” he said. “We can’t go high level on every platform.”

Planning defense budget cuts is being complicated by the changes taking place around the world. A panel looking at the Navy and Marine Corps opened its discussion into the stresses being faced by all the services in the geopolitical realm.

Maj. Gen. Melvin G. Spiese, USN, deputy commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force, noted that amid contested economic zones, many nations are developing or improving their capabilities in amphibious operations even while reducing land forces. Australia has moved its exchange officers from the British Army to the Royal Marines. Japan also is looking at developing an amphibious capability. And, China is developing a range of maritime capabilities.

Brig. Gen. Daniel J. O’Donohue, USMC, director, Capabilities Development Directorate, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, declared that the future belongs to maritime forces. He sees a basic integration among sea strike, sea shield and sea basing, which is necessary to face looming threats. “If and when we come out of Afghanistan, there are threats out there that are compelling,” he declared.

Conventional threats are not the only hazards facing future military operations. Adm. Mullen warned that cyber is an existential threat to the nation. “We don’t have many existential threats any more; cyber is one,” he said, adding, “I understand that the enemy is as good as we are.” He added that leaders must “understand it and guide us, or cyber will eat us up.”

On Day 2 of West 2012:

Addresses by Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, USN, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, and Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, USMC, director J-7, the Joint Staff, as well as three panel discussions.