Humans Lose, Robots Win in New Defense Budget
By Spencer Ackerman January 26, 2012 2:15 pm
The big loser in the Pentagon’s new budget? Ordinary human beings.
About 80,000 Army soldiers and 20,000 Marines are getting downsized. Half of the Army’s conventional combat presence in Europe is packing up and ending its post-Cold War staycation. Replacing them, according to the $613 billion budget previewed by the Pentagon on Thursday: unconventional special-operations forces; new bombers; new spy tools; new missiles for subs; and a veritable Cylon army of drones.
This is the first of the Pentagon’s new, smaller “austerity” budgets: it’s asking Congress for $525 billion (plus $88.4 billion for the Afghanistan war), compared to a $553 billion request (plus $117 billion in war cash) last year. Only the Pentagon is emphasizing (.pdf) what the military is keeping, not what it’s cutting. That’s because congressional Republicans don’t like swallowing these cuts — and really don’t want to acquiesce to a currently-scheduled law that could tack on another $600 billion-plus to the already-scheduled, decade-long $487 billion in cuts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is preempting the objections, promising a force that’s “smaller and leaner, but agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced.”
That means no changes to the U.S. fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and 10 air wings, all reflecting the Obama administration’s emphasis on the western Pacific. It means leaving the nuclear triad — the bombers, subs and missiles that can end all life on earth — alone. (With one exception: the military will delay replacing the Ohio-class submarine by two years.) It means electronic weapons to jam enemy defenses and attack online networks. It means elite commando forces like the ones who just rescued two aid workers kidnapped in Somalia. And it means drones for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.
As previewed by President Obama earlier this month, the new budget is going to fund 65 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols — squadrons of up to four drones — “with a surge capacity of 85,” up from 61 today. The Army may be losing 100,000 soldiers, but if it’s any consolation, the Army’s forthcoming Gray Eagle drone gets the thumbs-up.
So does “sea-based unmanned” systems like the Navy’s Fire Scout robo-copter, and unspecified “new unmanned systems with increased capabilities,” probably a reference to next-gen drones like the Navy’s X-47B, which should be able to fly from an aircraft carrier at the click of a mouse by 2018 — the better to patrol the Pacific.
Some other programs get expanded, too. For 20 years, Navy’s studied creating non-aircraft-carrier bases at sea, to put in places where the U.S. can’t have land bases, to launch small jump jets like the F/A-18 Hornet, helicopters or drones. Now the Pentagon will fund “development of a new afloat forward staging base,” according to budget documents, although it’s not specifying what how large those ships will be or how much they’ll cost.
It’s also a great time to be a snake-eater. Pentagon budget documents describe Special Operations Forces as “critical to U.S. and partner counter terrorism operations and a variety of other contemporary contingencies.” In other words, whereas the military invaded and occupied trouble spots during the 2000s, it’ll send commandos for discrete missions in the 2010s.
More money is also going into the Air Force’s new long-range bomber, which won’t always have a human in the cockpit; “improved air-to-air missiles,” probably to prepare for the day when China’s stealth aircraft are a challenge; new jammers and communications gear; and even designing “a conventional prompt strike option from submarines.” It’s going to be good time to manufacture powerful, non-nuclear missiles.
Even the most expensive defense program in history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet family, is getting a mere haircut. After Panetta embraced the planes on Friday, the Pentagon says it’ll merely “slow Joint Strike Fighter procurement” — even though weapons testing recently found it to have 13 expensive new flaws.
All that will let the military “retain a decisive technological edge,” Panetta said, “leverage the lessons of recent conflicts and stay ahead of the most lethal and disruptive threats of the future.”
Non-human beings actually do get the budget axe, though — mainly in the Air Force. As Danger Room first reported, the Air Force is losing older aircraft — specifically 27 “aging C-5A” cargo planes, as well as 65 of the newer C-130s (the Air Force will still have 318 of ‘em). It’s also losing 38 of what the Pentagon calls the “niche capability” C-27s, a curious propeller-driven cargo plane. And a variant of the Air Force’s much-used Global Hawk spy drone is getting cut, although an upgrade version will survive.
That won’t go over well with the flyboys. Their lobbying organization, the Air Force Association, sent a letter to Congress yesterday that represents something of a warning shot to the Pentagon. “While attributes like stealth, speed, and range were not necessary above [Iraq and Afghanistan], they are essential preconditions for securing US interests elsewhere,” 14 former top generals and Air Force official write. “Over the long-term, we must not assume de facto preeminence when it comes to innovating and producing the next generation of systems.”
But it’s not just the Air Force that gets cut. The Army’s fleet of missile-spotting blimps, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is getting “curtailed” — slowed down, but not cancelled — a move sure to raise eyebrows as the defense industry moves to make spy blimps the aerial surveillance tool of choice. The Army’s Humvees won’t get upgraded either, as the Army emphasizes its next line of armored trucks.
The Navy gets off mostly unscathed, owing to its primacy for Pacific defense. It’ll lose 7 cruisers ahead of schedule, most of which can’t contribute to seaborne missile defense, along with two small amphibious ships. One of its big-deck amphibious ships will be delayed a year. It’ll buy two fewer Littoral Combat Ships than it expected during the next five years, eight fewer Joint High Speed Vessels, and one fewer Virginia-class sub. But that should make the Navy happier than the Air Force and the Army.
Next week, lawmakers will lecture Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about how the cuts are irresponsibly endanger America. The GOP presidential candidates have already started. But the Pentagon may actually be overstating how large its budget cuts truly are.
Over the next five years, “total U.S. defense spending, including both base funding and war costs,” its budget documents contend, “will drop by about 22 percent from its peak in 2010, after accounting for inflation.”
Except that’s not exactly true. “When you set aside the fictional budget projections for Iraq and Afghanistan, which are ending anyway, this is about an eight percent cut from the most recent Pentagon budget projection,” says Gordon Adams, a former Clinton-era defense budget official. “What’s more, the defense budget would continue to grow over the next ten years, just less than they previously projected.”
No one said a military staffed with robots would come cheap.
When the tempest passes, the wicked is no more, but the righteous is established forever…