Last week during a Panel Discussion at the 2010 West Conference & Exposition, one thing that kept coming to mind was the goings-on in the mother country as they struggle to fund their defense budget. I kept hearing echos of what I have read about the challenges in the United Kingdom in some of the comments and observations about the future of the USN.
They have about a decade’s head-start in some areas, and not in a good way. If we choose to benchmark what decisions are being made there – we might be able to mitigate some of the down side; maybe.
Let me explain a bit.
Let’s look sideways (to the UK today) and look forward (2020s). When you look at what was promised in 2000 and what we have now – and project that difference forward – I don’t see as chickens coming home to roost, but vultures.
Just to have a sound foundation; for source documentation we are going to use the best magazine your money can buy, The Economist, and some comments last week by VADM David Dorsett, USN, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (N2/N6) and Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) from last week. We’ll get to him later.
First let’s look at the fundamental underpinnings of our defense budget – not strategy – MONEY.
From the latest issue of The Economist,
Mr Obama’s budget reveals a road-map to fiscal catastrophe. At no point over the coming decade will the deficit be below 3.6% of GDP; and after 2018, it starts rising again. The cuts the president has proposed are comically insufficient: a budget freeze on non-security discretionary spending, which amounts to only about 17% of the entire $3.8 trillion budget; and a toothless deficit commission (a better version has already been killed by obstructive Republicans in Congress) whose recommendations will doubtless be ignored.
Note the right side of that graph. 2020. Keep that in mind.
First is the fact that the British have been under a left-of-center government for over a decade. That is neither here nor there – but a simple observation. Especially in the USA, but in general the UK as well – a Labour/New Labour/Democrat Party in power does not result in significant military budgets without a national emergency. From War on Terror to Overseas Contingency Operations etc, again – no editorial commentary, just a review of the historical ledger. In addition, a decade of high deficits as we are likely to see, it won’t really matter who is in power in a decade – the need to cut will be there is spades.
The British’s overall budget woes are roughly parallel to ours +/-. Ahead of our timetable, they are starting the battle to find money to replace their SSBN fleet now, and their defense budget – starved for years as a % of GDP vs. OPTEMPO – is shredding as they try to rebuild and maintain a fighting force in Afghanistan with other smaller international commitments.
Hard choices, many already made in the Royal Navy, are being demanded more and more as past neglect needs to be repaired out of hide. Financially they just cannot get the money they need in competition with other domestic programs their government has obligated itself to spend money on.
Let’s look at what is happening in the United Kingdom. From an earlier edition of The Economist;
This will cost about £1.2 billion ($1.9 billion) over the next three years. Some £280m of it will come from the Treasury, which has already provided £14 billion from its reserves to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lion’s share, however, will be found by raiding other parts of the overstretched defence budget, with planned cuts that would realise around £1.5 billion over three years.
This amounts to more than trimming fat (by, for example, slashing the number of civil servants at the Ministry of Defence); solid muscle is to be sliced into as well. The Nimrod surveillance aircraft, one of which exploded over Afghanistan in 2006 because of a fuel leak, will be retired by March. The introduction of the new model, the Nimrod MRA4, will be delayed. This means that, at a time of greater Russian underwater activity, there will be a gap in anti-submarine surveillance to protect Britain’s own nuclear-armed subs. One of four Harrier squadrons is being lost and the rest are to be moved out of RAF Cottesmore, which will be closed. This could reduce still further training on Britain’s aircraft carriers. The loss of a minesweeper, at a time of rising tension in the Persian Gulf over Iran’s nuclear programme, was questioned by opposition MPs. Army training “not required for operations”, such as tank manoeuvres, will be reduced.
This is an unusually brave move by a defence secretary who was widely derided as second-rate when he was appointed in June, the fourth man in the job in four years. But whoever takes charge after next year’s general election will need to be braver still. Britain’s plans to buy new military equipment have long been unaffordable. Successive ministers have tried to balance the books by short-term savings (such as delaying or scaling back new equipment) that incur long-term costs. This has created a growing “bow-wave” of unfunded commitments that may finally break when an overdue Strategic Defence Review is held after the election.
Read that again. Look at those dollars you P-3/P-8 Bubbas …. because it parallels something said last week in San Diego about “..if you had to, where would you find a couple of $ billion.”
VADM Dorsett responded to that question in an interesting way. As N2/N6/DNI – Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) is a critical capability for him. It is a growth industry, but he has to look at how he meets COCOM demands within a limited, and possibly stagnant-to-decreasing budget.
He started a couple of times to answer, and then backed off. He paused, thought about his words carefully, and then stated with a grimace (paraphrase),
“Legacy ISR systems …”
When you fold that into the previous discussions about unmanned ISR in the panel discussion – there can be only one area he is talking about in a USN context – P-3/EP-3 and the upcoming P-8/EP-8 program. Re-read the above about the Nimrod. Ponder.
From a manpower and hardware requirements/budget POV, he is right, that is a large bucket of money – and if you need to make a call, make it. It is a defendable call as well. Subject to debate, sure – but defendable – yes.
That community’s vulnerability to a money grab is largely their fault. As we have reviewed at my home blog over the years, it’s leadership spent a decade hiding the possibility – and then the fact – of their exceptional fatigue life problems until they couldn’t be hidden any longer. They created bad blood through defending a Cold War staff structure while the actual personnel and platforms at the pointy end shrunk by almost 50%.
In spite of the “transformational” press they received right after 9/11 with their overhead ISR in support of OEF/OIF – starting with pressure from CNO Clark to shut up about it – they avoided toot’n their horn in this area to stress ASW — while operationally they continued to provide overhead ISR as their major contribution. The public face vs. COCOM requirements delta was huge. What got all the ISR press: UAV/UAS.
If you don’t tell your story, no one will hear it. If you don’t make yourself a lean operation while others are fighting and dying, you create distrust and envy among your peers. Neither buys you friends in budget fights.
In these two areas, the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance (MPR) community (as the P-3/EP-3-P-8/EP-8 folks are easier to describe) spent most of the decade setting the conditions for the same thing to happen to them that happened to their British counterpart – and in back rooms, discussions are already taking place … and some action in the shadows.
Is the “legacy” MPR fleet about to be decimated like the Nimrod? No, I don’t think so. Is the P-8 buy going to shrink? Perhaps. Could P-3 squadrons be decommissioned early? Perhaps. Is that the right answer? Perhaps. Priorities – and in the aviation side of the house, the F-35 isn’t getting any cheaper.
Let’s look at 2020 again. What else is happening in the 20’s? Well, for one, we will have to find money to re-capitalized the SSBN fleet. I offer to you that the 20 JAN HASC SEF Subcommittee meeting has an outstanding money discussion about that challenge. Deputy SECNAV Work has also discussed this challenge in other venues, and I think he has a very firm grasp of the problem, as do many in positions to know.
You have to look at it in the broader context of the budget as well. The hangover in the 20’s from this decade’s drunken frenzy of spending will couple with another cohort of Baby Boomers retiring and putting stress on the budget in ways we still do not have a firm grasp on.
In 2020 – a ship built in 1990 will be at 30 years. That LCS built in 2009 will only have 9 years or so of service life (LCS is expected to only last 20-25 years) – so by the end of the 2020’s, LCS will be dropping like flies.
When you consider that we will be limited this decade to LCS and DDG-51 for our non-amphib surface ship programs (don’t throw JHSV at me, that is just a truck – full stop – all else is spin and hope) – you have about a perfect storm for the 20’s of limited shipbuilding funds and a stunted fleet.
Stunted? If you continue to assume that CG(X) is dead, then you might get funding for the much needed DDG(X) follow-on to the DDG-51 – might, should. That will be requested in light of the SSBN money sponge – and I don’t see how with all the other needs in the 20’s, we will be able to afford both a DDG(X) and a CG(X) – and there is a good chance that we will simply have to live with DDG-51 Flight III as our “new” platform through the beginning of the mid-21st Century.
I know that looking into the future is a fuzzy hobby. Heck, if you outlined in 2000 where we were in 2010 people would have said you were a nutty pessimist – so we can only see 2020 in very large, fuzzy pixels. The beginning of the mid-century (2030) is just a silly exercise in many ways – but one that needs to be done. The pixels get smaller and clearer with each year, giving you time to shift aim as needed.
There are known-knowns (DDG-1000 will be a rump, expensive class of ships, Ticos history, DDG-51 backbone, LCS decomm’n like flies, etc), known-unknowns (will LCS even meet some of its promised ability and numbers, will DDG(X) be moving forward), and unknown-unknowns (Black Swan events), but still – 2020 is closer than we think, and there are economic facts that need to be looked at.
Huge challenge, one whose source is the lost decade of transformatinalist sugarhigh we just came out of. Yes, the “transformational” decade. The one that was to build the Fleet of the future. Well, it sure did, didn’t it? If nothing else, hoist that well known lesson onboard; avoid the transformatinalist seduction for a few decades if we can.
Look at what the Royal Navy is dealing with today, and it isn’t a stretch to see similar challenges for ourselves. Look and learn – and perhaps we can mitigate the pain.