The future of Defense: Software?

The U.S. military strategy for the current world: Take a given-sized ball of dough and stretch it into a wider but thinner pie crust.

A new cold war emerges among “great” powers, sort of.

Remember when Mikhail Gorbachev tore down that wall (not personally) shortly before the dissolution of the USSR? U.S. politicians and think-tankers began to refer to the United States as the only superpower. The Cold War that defined so much of American life past World War II had seemingly evaporated.

Judging from the Obama administration’s defense budget request for 2017, that era has ended.

Here’s the official word from the Pentagon on what the 2017 budget proposal has to say, which means it comes ultimately from the White House: Countering Russia and China is a return to great-power competition. It looks to me like a 21st century version of the Cold War.

Federal Drive host Tom Temin

But it’s going to be a competition not of massed forces so much as of technologies. In this big summary you’ll find the numbers. Top lines: Active duty defense service members now at 1.3 million will drop slightly to 1.28 million next year. Reserves will drop from 819,000 to 801,000. So, no, the outlook doesn’t envision having 2 million soldiers in some NATO country ready for an invasion of Russia.

Spending is up somewhat. But given the personnel and other largely fixed costs the Pentagon must maintain, none of the armed services are really growing. Procurements are all over the place. The Navy would see an uptick in shipbuilding dollars of $2 billion, after all the adds and cuts to the various programs. Submarine-building gets twice the money as carriers. The Air Force gets a little less next year for combat aircraft, but a jump in dollars for airlift planes. The numbers go on and on, but in essence they don’t show any kind of military buildup as classically understood.

The administration says it will spend more on what it calls five strategic challenges: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and counter-terrorism. It will do this with more emphasis on surveillance, intelligence, electronic countermeasures and smarter munitions. With respect to China, the strategy includes moving some ballistic missile ship and F-35s to Japan, helping partners’ maritime capabilities, and continuing to fly and sail through what China considers no-fly and no-sail zones. But if you’re looking for two new carrier groups and 25,000 naval personnel in the pivot to Asia, you won’t find it.

As for Russia,  there’s four times more money, or $3 billion, for what the administration calls its European Reassurance Initiative and other “targeted” and “prudent” investments.

Given budget constraints about which Republicans and Democrats feud only around the edges, the U.S. military response to the current world is to basically take a given size ball of dough and stretch it into a wider but thinner pie crust, with electronics — some still to be developed — making up the difference.

A couple of other interesting details I found at first perusal:

  • A $6.7 billion request for military cybersecurity, some of which is to be directed at developing offensive cyber capabilities. Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments tells me that military brass likely saw how Russia knocked out computer networks in Georgia and Ukraine.
  • A proposal to keep the much-argued-over A-10 ground support plane  going until 2022.
  • Selling F-35s to Israel and no other nation in the region.
  • Making another run at a base realighment and closure program, something Congress has steadily resisted.

All of the electronically-derived competitive advantages will be hard to keep. Russia and China both have deep engineering and mathematics and manufacturing capabilities. Who know what China has learned simply from being the place where a gazillion iPhones are built?

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More commentary from Tom Temin