DoD plans wholesale cancellations of some military missions

Budget realities being what they are, the Pentagon’s top leadership has reached a conclusion that runs contrary to the inertia and impulses of most large bureaucracies: if it’s going to be able to pay for its most vital functions, there are some other missions it needs to just stop doing.

DoD leaders are more optimistic now that Congress will find another way to bypass sequestration than they were a few months ago, but one way or another, budgets will be tight. So it’s time to make tough decisions about which missions the military will cease entirely, Robert Work, the deputy secretary of Defense said Tuesday.

He said the search for military mission areas DoD can afford to sacrifice will be a main focus of the department’s 2017 budget process. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expects to submit a new set of “strategic guidance” by the end of July outlining the basic parameters the military services should use to cancel existing initiatives and divert their funding elsewhere.

“It’s going to be tough. There’s no simple way out of this problem,” Work said. “The fact is that we’re going to have to really prioritize and be ruthless about it.”

A large-scale reframing of budget priorities is necessary, Work said, because DoD feels it has several mission areas in which it urgently needs to invest billions more dollars, including upgrades to a nuclear infrastructure that have been on the back burner for decades, building cyber offensive and defensive capabilities and making DoD’s critical space-based systems more resilient to attack from potential adversaries.

He said the department assumes it will have an extremely-constrained topline budget regardless of whether lawmakers agree to bypass the existing caps in the Budget Control Act, and there are very few other maneuvers which could free up billions of dollars in a single budget year.

“You can say that we should just get more efficient, and yes, we’re doing that,” he said. “We cooked more than $350 billion in efficiencies into our five-year budget plan, but some of those are things that Congress won’t allow us to do. We can’t do base realignments and closures. We can’t even realign aircraft depots — which would save us a lot of money — it’s politically impossible. The next thing we could do is reduce force structure, but the demand on our forces as they exist right now is off the charts, so unless demand is moderated in some way, it’s going to be difficult to cut our forces. So that leads you to look into each one of your portfolios and say, ‘Where do we want to take risks?’ We have to do that so we can perform our high-priority missions, like space, nuclear, cyber, etcetera.”

Work, who made his remarks Tuesday during GEOINT 2015, a large annual conference hosted by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, said in order to prioritize its missions, the department also would need to make organizational changes that would consolidate decision-making authority for budgets in four key areas: space, cyber, nuclear and electronic warfare.

As of now, each of those broad missions are diffused throughout the military services with no single decision maker responsible for setting budget priorities in any one of them. The consolidation will begin within the space mission set.

While the Secretary of the Air Force is technically DoD’s “executive agent” for all space matters, in practical terms, her main function is to chair a consensus-oriented group called the Defense Space Council, and has no actual decision authority outside her own service.

“And at the end of last year’s budget round, Secretary [Deborah Lee] James came forward and said, ‘I think the executive agent is very important, but I don’t have the power to do much of anything.’ So we’re in the process of empowering that position. It will become the Space Adviser to the Secretary of Defense, separate from the consensus process we already have in the department.”

Additionally, Work said DoD needs a dedicated Space Operations Center to coordinate the military services’ various activities in Earth orbit. He called it the department’s highest priority with respect to space, and said the new center would be up and running within the next six months.

He said the United States has enjoyed such an overwhelming advantage in space for so many decades that the government has become complacent with regard to potential threats to its satellites. But potential enemies now know how to take U.S space assets offline either by physically damaging them or jamming their communications with ground stations.

In a real war with a near-peer enemy, the impacts of such an event could be extremely profound, seriously degrading the government’s intelligence capabilities, the accuracy of the military’s precision-guided weapons and most obviously, the ability of U.S military forces to communicate around the world.

“We need a joint, interagency and combined space operations center in which both the intelligence community and DoD sit,” Work said. “All of our space awareness capabilities need to dump into that center, and we are going to develop the tactics, techniques procedures and rules of the road that will allow us to fight with and protect our space architecture while it’s under attack. We think that’s our highest near-term payoff, and we will continue to refine it. We’ll have it done very soon, but we’re still continuing to figure out better ways to strengthen our focus on space, and that will be a key thing in our 2015 budget build.”

The Pentagon already has begun to shift some dollars toward space: the 2016 budget it submitted in February included a $5 billion plus-up to space programs, every dollar of which had to be taken from other areas of the budget, Work said.

With regard to the overall Defense topline for 2016 and beyond, Work said DoD leaders are not assuming the rosiest of scenarios, but they have grown much more optimistic over the last several weeks that Congress will find a way to bypass the caps DoD faces under the Budget Control Act, just as lawmakers did for the past two budget cycles with the Ryan-Murray agreement.

The original caps are set to trigger once again beginning Oct. 1 though, reducing DoD’s planned spending by $35 billion.

But Work said several events over the past few weeks have increased the department’s confidence that it will get something close to the $585 billion budget it has asked for; among them was a strong veto threat from the White House, which objected to Congressional
plans to raise DoD’s budget without similar relief for other federal departments.

“Both of the Defense and non-Defense budgets have to rise, because the sequestration levels hurt our nation in many, many different ways. You can’t just raise the DoD budget without looking at the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the FBI or all of the other areas of national security that are outside the DoD budget,” he said. “Budget instability is killing us. We simply can’t make any big moves, because we’re afraid we won’t have the budgets to support them. There have been indications that both the House and the Senate will have the votes to sustain a veto. We hope that will encourage members in both chambers to come together and keep us from having sequestration again.”

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