Work: DoD needs funding boost, but fixing readiness will take years

An “unmitigated disaster” lies ahead for military modernization, training and readiness if Congress rejects the President’s request to raise Defense spending $36 billion above existing budget caps in fiscal 2016 and do away with sequestration, the Pentagon’s number-two official said Tuesday.

But Robert Work, the Deputy Defense Secretary, also acknowledged the military’s readiness shortfalls are not purely a money problem: Even in a best-case budget picture, the Pentagon projects that the military services won’t get back to “full spectrum” readiness for another eight years.

Work said the military’s slippage in its ability to effectively respond to a broad spectrum of conflict scenarios is due in part to the military’s 13-year focus on counterinsurgency warfare and an ongoing recovery from a “gut punch” military readiness took when sequestration first hit in 2013, almost instantly grounding combat squadrons and halting training rotations.

Those factors, combined with an operational tempo that remains high post-Iraq and Afghanistan, mean the Army and Navy won’t achieve the readiness levels their leaders think they need until 2020, even if Congress agrees to fund DoD at the levels it requested, and the Air Force won’t accomplish a full recovery until 2023.

“Everybody needs to understand that our forward-deployed forces are locked, cocked and ready to go. But our surge force — the heavy-duty punch that you throw when it’s necessary — is not as ready as it’s been in the past,” he said during The Western Conference and Exposition, sponsored by AFCEA and the U.S. Naval Institute. “This is something that troubles us very much.”

Work said it’s vital that Congress repeal sequestration, but he also cautioned that at this point, the readiness recovery is almost as much of an issue of time as of funding.

No excess training capacity

To help hasten the recovery, DoD made some changes in this year’s budget proposal, including by delaying the Army drawdown plans the department announced last year. The active duty Army still would shrink from 490,000 to 450,000 soldiers, but instead of finishing the process in 2017, the Pentagon would stretch it into 2018.

“That’s to allow less personnel turbulence in the combat units. That will help near-term readiness,” he said. “We also added money to home-station training so that the forces that are home can get to the ranges, and we invested in that range infrastructure. We also added funding to reduce our maintenance backlog, and overall, we increased each of the services’ operation and maintenance accounts by nearly 10 percent compared to last year. But we concluded that you can’t put too much more money toward this problem, because building toward full-spectrum combat readiness takes time.”

That’s because many of the military’s training institutions are calibrated to meet a steady tempo of demand and aren’t able to surge much excess capacity to process extra units through, almost irrespective of how much money the Pentagon throws at them in a given year, Work said.

In the case of the Army, officials had to cancel numerous rotations through the service’s National Training Center for budget reasons starting in 2013, and the Army’s brass calculated that each of their brigade combat teams need to cycle through the NTC at least twice before they’re at a state of full-spectrum readiness. Training rotations have returned to normal after Congress added money into the 2014 and 2015 budgets, but the pipeline of troops who need training has backed up in the meantime.

“We’re maxed out,” Work said. “We can only send 19 BCTs per year to the National Training Center. Money is not going to help that at this point.”

And in the Navy and the Air Force, the end of official combat operations in Afghanistan won’t have much of an effect the demand for those services’ forces, especially in U..S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command.

“Those demand signals remain very high. The aerospace and naval forces are out and about, and they’re not spending enough time at home station to get their training done before deploying. That’s why all of this this is going to take until 2023,” Work said. “When you hear that, you say, ‘Holy crap, this is bad.’ But think back to Vietnam, which was another long war that had a big impact on our forces. It probably took until 1987 for us to regain full-spectrum readiness. Readiness is something where you’ve got to just keep at it.”

That’s not to say money isn’t important. The department consistently maintains that because of rising personnel costs, it needs a budget that increases at a rate of between one-and-three percent each year in order to keep a balance in spending between acquisition programs, personnel spending and readiness, and budgets have been essentially flat for the past three years.

Money-saving ideas rejected

That being the case, Work insisted DoD has done almost all it can internally to find efficiencies so that it can achieve as much of that balance as possible within its own budget, but most of the restructuring it’s done involves changes that won’t pay off within a year or two. And he complained that Congress frequently stands in the way of those efforts anyhow.

“They denied the Air Force the ability to divest the A-10. They denied the Navy’s ability to put 11 cruisers into deferred modernization. They denied the Army’s aviation restructuring initiative. And even though we continue to reduce our force, Congress continues to reject our repeated request for a new base realignment and closure round,” Work said.

“Yes, that would cost us some money up front, but it would save us about $2 billion a year. $10 billion across the five-year Defense plan is a lot of modernization we could be doing instead. Maintaining outdated and duplicative systems and outdated infrastructure drains resources that should go elsewhere. It is wasteful. It is strategically unsound, and it ultimately endangers the readiness of our men and women in uniform.”

In upcoming budget hearings, DoD will also press its case for a new “offset strategy” designed help the U.S. regain the technological advantages the department’s leaders think has been waning as China and Russia pour more money into their military budgets.

Work described a Defense plan, based on the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which would spend more on advanced communications and munitions, cyber, defending satellites from attack, and missile defense.

He said the offset strategy would operate in phases. Leaders want to start research and development now for technologies that won’t pay off for another decade or so, but in the meantime, they also want to fund programs that can boost the U.S. technological edge within the timespan of the current five-year budget, including by fusing new commercial-based technologies with existing systems.

“So in the 2016 budget, you’ll see some really potentially-game-changing technologies,” he said.

Technology race is in full swing

Work said the third offset strategy will have to be different than the first two, which were based almost entirely on the fact that the U.S. built better technologies faster than any of its rivals could, starting with a buildup of tactical nuclear weapons, and later, a family of precision guided munitions and other networked technologies.

But this time, everyone has access to essentially the same global technological base, so the race, he said, is now about whoever is best at integrating those capabilities together into cohesive systems and operational concepts.

So, the thinking goes, while other countries are working to build munitions that can sink American warships, the Pentagon ought to respond in the near term by improving upon what it has. There’s already a Tomahawk missile that can precisely seek out a land target from many hundreds of miles away. Why not adapt it to shoot at enemy ships?

“Just a few weeks ago, the U.S.S. Kidd fired a Tomahawk missile that changed course mid-flight and struck a moving ship after being cued by an aircraft,” Work said. “This is a potentially game-changing capability for not a lot of cost, and you’d suddenly have a 1,000-mile anti-ship cruise missile that can be used from practically our entire surface and submarine fleet without having to build an entire new missile. We believe that if we make decisions like that, we’ll be able to out-turn our potential adversaries and maintain technological superiority.”


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