Technology is game changer in facing sequestration

U.S. Navy/John F. Williams

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Nevin P. Carr Jr., center, chief of naval research, speaks with Mike Rucker, program manager, General Atomics, Roger Ellis, the manager of the Railgun program with the Office of Naval Research, and Tom Hurn, director of advanced weapons systems, General Atomics, about the Railgun on display at Pier 88 in Manhattan, N.Y., May 26, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Whether or not #sequestration is handled, the question is how the Pentagon will choose to downsize.

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  • The current defense budget would cut more than 8% from research and development investments from 2012 plans.

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  • The smart way to succeed in downsizing defense is to invest in high-reward, market-altering technology.

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  • Pentagon should concentrate research on game-changing technologies in energy, nanotech, biotech and more.

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  • Now is the time to build a sustainable architecture to respond to the strategic & economic challenges of the 21st century.

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The Pentagon is already struggling with how to absorb current budget cuts that are producing a military with significantly reduced capacity and capability. So, no matter how sequestration is — or is not — addressed, the central question is whether the Pentagon will simply downsize with a “less-of-the-same” approach or pursue a vision of “creative destruction.”

The uncertainty surrounding sequestration, the high likelihood of another couple hundred billion dollars in additional defense cuts and significantly reduced buying power only add to the urgent need for change in the military.

First, bumper sticker solutions and rhetoric must begin matching investments. While defense officials pay good lip service to innovation, the administration’s fiscal 2013 budget request falls short of supporting next-generation technologies, experimental prototypes and live-fire testing and shared risk in design and development of projects with high potential.

The current defense budget would cut more than 8 percent from research and development investments from 2012 plans. Yet, as many corporate leaders already know, a smart way to succeed in a downswing is to invest in high-reward technologies that have market-altering potential.

The Pentagon should concentrate research and development efforts on game-changing technologies, including directed energy weapons, nanotechnology and solid-state and fiber lasers, biotechnologies, hypersonic missiles, carrier-launched unmanned drones outfitted specifically for ground attack and materials that harden faster than concrete.

The common thread linking these investments is that although they may be years from operational readiness, they could fundamentally change the way America projects power by supporting either increased offensive or defensive capabilities. Investing in the future is both a hedge against uncertainty and a way to pioneer changes in warfare.

Second, because American dominance is being threatened by states that have invested heavily in precision-guided munitions and asymmetrical means to counter traditional U.S. war fighting platforms and competitive advantages, the Pentagon has created two key concepts: Air-Sea Battle and the Joint Operational Access Concept.

Despite its name, Air-Sea Battle is not a war plan but a way for the Air Force and Navy to work together to solve operational problems created by the proliferation of precision-guided munitions and anti-access and area-denial technologies. The Joint Operational Access Concept is essentially a collection of principles and potential counters to these same systems.

While these concepts are useful, they are steps three and four in a process that must begin with a core strategy. In this sense, they represent much of what is wrong with the Pentagon’s planning today. Air-Sea Battle is an essential concept, but it lacks a holistic strategic vision from which it flows.

Without a unifying strategy to employ these forces — and to what ends — they remain devoid of any larger context. Plans are only as good as the ends they serve, and there is a lack of strategic planning when it comes to employing forces in the Asia-Pacific. The U. S. military needs a long-term strategy for competition in this key region.

Finally, Congress must stop playing catch-up with the Pentagon — the policymakers’ default posture since Sept. 11. Members should dust off the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel report from 2010, which has many timely recommendations awaiting consideration.

Congress should establish a standing independent strategic review panel that would provide planning guidance every four years. The House version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act embraces this recommendation, but it needs to go further. As part of its mandate, the council should also produce an unclassified risk assessment for Congress annually. The current budget request is full of statements proclaiming that delaying the procurement of a certain weapon system is a “manageable risk” or that it’s a “responsible risk” to quickly reduce end strength. But Congress — and the wider public — have little clue as to what these phrases actually mean in execution.

There are simply too many budget decision changes year after year for elected officials to have a clear understanding of the qualitative and quantitative risk they’re signing up those in uniform to bear. By creating an independent panel to consider all levels of risk — from the strategic to the tactical — policymakers can open up the Pentagon’s risk calculations to public scrutiny and decide for themselves whether these reports are overly informed by group think.

Congress may finally get a long overdue and more transparent insight into the analysis behind many Pentagon decisions. This would allow members to make better-informed choices, to more robustly oversee the largest federal agency and to share more leadership on strategic changes as opposed to simply reacting.

As the defense budget continues to decline, Pentagon and congressional leaders bear responsibility to stay in front of a changing threat environment and shifting risk calculations while still planning smartly for the future.These three steps are only the beginning; many more will be needed. But the tired defense reform agenda focused on the goal of achieving more efficiency primarily through cutting people, infrastructure, programs and dollars has peaked. Now is the time to build a sustainable architecture to respond to the strategic and economic challenges of the 21st century at the Pentagon.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies




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