The Obama administration is reportedly pushing for yet another $100 billion in Defense cuts, on top of the more than $500 billion in cuts to the ten-year defense spending plan the White House is already planning to enact -- ensuring that there will be few -- if any -- major Obama era defense programs left.
In cutting our military so drastically, President Obama and Secretary Panetta are effectively cutting themselves and the United States off from any real future influence on US strategic policy.
Republicans are, on the whole, protesting against what they see as an effort to liquidate American military power.
The fight in the Congress will probably follow the traditional Washington pattern: a compromise for the 2012 Defense Department budget will eventually emerge. Plans to cut hundreds of billions in Defense spending over the next ten years, however, will remain on the books.
The weakness of the administration's programs in space and missile defense will be expensive to repair. The cancellation of the advanced communications satellite program, known as T-Sat, is already creating difficulties for the men and women who must figure out how the US military will be able to operate worldwide in the later part of this decade.
The good news, however, is that the vacuum they are creating gives the GOP an unusual opportunity to shape the future in ways that are normally denied to an administration in its early days in office. If, in 2012, a Republican wins the White House, he or she will have an unprecedented chance to make far-reaching National Security decisions largely unconstrained by previous plans and commitments.
The Republicans will, if they chose, be able to reinvigorate a number of important sectors of the defense industry and thus shape the strategic environment of the first half of the 21st century.
The greatest single accomplishment that a new administration could achieve in its first term would be a through and complete reform of the Defense acquisition system. Recently, Admiral Gary Roughead, the Chief of Naval Operations, explained part of the problem: "There is a great aversion to going forth boldly with some of these new systems. We are encumbered by an extraordinary bureaucratic process that is intolerable of failure. As a result we do things to prolong the process, we increase the costs accordingly and, I think, we are losing some opportunities."
Reform is desperately needed, but ironically, it can only be done by a team at the Pentagon with intimate, up-to-date knowledge of the problem. That means that at least a few members of the Obama administration should be asked to stay on to help design and implement the reforms.
As the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan move into a new, and less intensive, phase, the US can afford to decrease, as least slightly, the overall size of the Army. What a new administration must do soon is to make major investments in the Air, Naval, Space and Cyber forces.
Does the Navy, for example, need to begin building submarines at a faster rate? Current plans call for building the Virginia-class, nuclear-powered attack submarines at a rate of two per year. If this were increased to three per year the size of the US attack submarine fleet in the 2020s would be around 60 boats, compared to the current plan to reduce the number down to 48 or less. The extra submarines would insure US maritime supremacy until at least the late 2030s.
The case for building more air superiority F-22s should be obvious. Without command of the air over the battlefield, there can be no victory. Or the new administration could choose to begin development on a new lightweight air superiority fighter. This new plane would probably not be ready for production until at least 2025.
The belief that Unmanned Air Combat Vehicles (UCAV) will be ready for air to air combat in the middle of the next decade may not come true. These UCAVs have their own set of vulnerabilities and limitations. Their communications links are one weak spot, and it is questionable whether autonomous air-combat software will be ready or reliable by 2020 or 2025. It may, however, be too soon to give up on manned combat aircraft.
The Obama administration has agreed to start work on a new "Optionally Manned" long range bomber. It will be up to the next administration to decide if this is the best use for the limited funds available. One alternative that might be cheaper would be to build a new version of the B-2 stealth bomber. The design already exists and the system is well understood.
On Missile Defense, the administration's cancellation of the Bush-era plan to put ten interceptors in Poland has been replaced by a phased plan to deploy a number of sea-based interceptors supplemented by ground based ones, later in the decade. This plan has been questioned by the Defense Science Board. A new administration could reexamine to premises behind this program.
. The two major Obama-era programs that a new GOP administration will have to decide whether to kill or not are the new European missile defense project, which is now entwined in Arms Control negotiations with Russia, and the new long-range bomber.
After Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, his policy of "Peace Through Strength" was well known and well understood. What was not so well known was that his policy choices were, for the most part, determined by what previous administrations had done. Decisions that shaped what became known as the "Reagan Buildup" were largely made in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations.
For example, the doctrine known as "Air Land Battle" -- which sought to maximize the tactical and operational synergies of the Army's mechanized forces with the Air Force's tactical and operational ability to attack enemy forces on or near the battlefield -- was developed in the late 1970s. All the Reagan administration could do was to pay the bills and ensure that the forces needed to implement the doctrine were well supplied and well trained. In the Iraqi desert in 1991, the doctrine's fundamental soundness was proven.
In the Naval sphere, during the Reagan administration, people in the military built ships and bought planes that had been designed to fight battles that had been planned long before these men ever set foot inside the Pentagon.
One of the biggest political fights of Reagan;s first term was over former President Jimmy Carter's plan to station Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. Almost the entire nuclear weapons program of the eight years President Reagan spent in office was predetermined by decisions made by his immediate predecessors. The only exception was the move to build 100 B-1 bombers, which reversed Carter's decision to cancel that program.
Reagan's greatest strategic move was to begin work on Missile Defenses. His "Star Wars" program, as it was called, shifted the balance of power in the Cold War by forcing the USSR to take America's technological superiority into account -- but it had started as just a research program whose massive results would not emerge for more than a decade.
In 2001, When George W. Bush assumed office, he was faced with a similar shortage of maneuvering room. When, for instance, he promised to build a system to protect America's homeland from some ICBMs; the experts at the Pentagon told him that the only way to do so in the time frame he wanted was to build a version of former President Clinton's National Missile Defense system.
The Ground Based Missile Defense system that exists today in Alaska and California is, essentially, one that was designed by the Clinton administration and built by the the Bush administration. Once again, a Republican President had little choice but to implement strategic decisions that had been taken by a Democratic President.
If there is a new administration in 2013, it will face a tough budget and strategic environment. If it wants to rebuild US credibility it will have to reform the Defense Department and at the same time increase spending on critical systems. The opportunity may be unique, but so is the size of the defense and foreign policy challenge. This will not be at all easy, but that is why we elect presidents.