Senator John McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a report last week outlining spending priorities for the defense industry over the next five years. The report, entitled Restoring American Power, decries the damage done by eight years of indirect budget cuts to the Department of Defense. The result is “[a] military caught in a downward spiral of depleted readiness and deferred modernization.”
The report’s backers will find comfort in President Trump’s pledge to reverse the indiscriminate sequestration of the Budget Control Act and boost defense spending in the years to come. Though it’s only a wish list at this point, the report may come to represent a blueprint on how to spend the expected influx of defense funding.
Here are some of the major recommendations:
Restoring American Power calls for an increase in shipbuilding without specifying a specific ‘sweet spot’ in terms of fleet size. The US Navy currently consists of 274 ships. Under former president Obama’s five-year plan, 41 new ships would be built over the next five years. According to the report, this number could increase to 59 new ships if the proper funding were to be allocated.
In line with a call for more capabilities at the ‘high end’ of the defense spectrum in order to deter and combat increasingly capable nation-state foes, the report calls for the following moves:
- Increase procurement of manned submarines from two per year to three per year in 2020, and then four per year starting in 2021. The report notes that any increase between now and 2020 would be impossible.
- Accelerate the production of unmanned undersea vehicles.
- End the controversial Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and begin the procurement process for a new small surface combatant platform.
- Start transitioning from conventional, large-size supercarriers to smaller carriers that are capable of day-to-day missions such as ‘power projection, sea lane control, close air support, and counterterrorism.’
- Fill the gap in Navy strike aircraft on these carriers, which is expected to reach a shortfall of 111 aircraft by 2030. To this end, the Navy should purchase an additional 58 F-18 Super Hornets, 16 EA-18G Growlers, and procure the long-delayed F-35C as soon as possible.
- Accelerate the program to make UAVs, particularly the MQ-25 operational from aircraft carriers.
- Increase munitions inventories which have been the ‘first victim’ of budget cuts.
Senator McCain calls for a reorientation away from the recent focus on counterterrorism and crisis response and toward deterrence of great power competitors.
More specifically, the report calls for the following moves:
- More investments in unmanned systems, long-range fires, electronic warfare, and amphibious vehicles.
- Expand the number of marines, which now sits at 182,000 (the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review recommended a force level of 202,000).
- Modernize and repair the ‘ fleet of aircraft over the short-term, and accelerate the procurement of platforms like the F-35B strike aircraft, CH-53K helicopter, and KC-130J tanker and support aircraft. The report singles out the need for an additional procurement of 20 F-35B aircraft to replace the aging fleet.
The report provides a stark appraisal of the US Air Force, which it dubs: “the oldest, smallest, and least ready in its history.” The Air Force has divested over 400 combat fighters over the last five years, leaving it with 1,100 combat-coded aircraft. The report also notes that China and Russia are deploying “potent integrated air defense systems, fifth generation fighter fleets, advanced munitions, and other systems” that are eroding the US advantage.
The report calls for the following:
- Find a way to increase the pace of F-35A acquisition. The current procurement schedule would take until 2040 to complete, with a total of 1,763 F-35As.
- Develop and field a new long-range, penetrating counter-fighter along with new electronic attack capabilities to maintain US air dominance beyond the 2020s. It’s possible that these platforms could be unmanned.
- Embrace a ‘high-low’ mix of aircraft that puts fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 and F-16 to good use. To this end, invest in the existing fleet to extend their life and operational capacity.
- Procure 300 low-cost, light-attack fighters by 2020 to complement the existing A-10 fleet.
- Grow Air Force personnel by 20,000 over the next five years.
- Expand critical enablers in the Air Force (mobility forces, tanker aircraft, ISR platforms, and electronic attack aircraft) to keep pace with the expansion of Army ground forces.
Restoring American Power states that the US Army is in desperate need of modernization after having been at war for 15 years and squandering billions on failed acquisition programs.
The report calls for the following:
- Develop a new multifunctional, adaptable ground combat vehicle using non-developmental components so it can be fielded quickly and at low cost.
- Modernize the Army’s stock of munitions.
- Modernize air defense capabilities such as the Patriot and Stinger missiles. Focus development on a new highly maneuverable, short-range air defense system.
- Conduct a new study to determine the optimum size of the Army, which has seen its troop numbers cut by 100,000 since 2012.
- Maintain and refine the current counterterrorism mission, such as Train/Advise/Assist brigades (that in Iraq for example).
- Invest in increasing readiness throughout the Army, as only two of the Army’s 60 brigade combat teams are at the highest standards of readiness.
The report’s recommendations for force posture contain some points that may clash with the Trump administration’s isolationist leanings. It notes that area denial/anti-access capabilities have progressed across multiple theaters, and that the optimum response would be to bolster the US military’s permanent military footprint. In the report’s words: “We require more permanently forward-stationed forces that are highly survivable and capable of denying an adversary air cover, rapid land mobility, control of the seas, and effective use of the electro-magnetic spectrum.”
Takeaways from the Report
There was always a paradox at the center of Donald Trump’s military policy, that of wanting to substantially boost funding while simultaneously dismantling the global network of alliances and bases that facilitates US power. The overwhelming question being: What’s the point of a hegemonic military force if you’re not interested in playing the part of hegemon?
It’s possible that this paradox could manifest on the political stage as Congress gets down to the nitty gritty of Senator McCain’s recommendations. The report is ambitious in what it’s asking for. In its own words: “[this] budget increase is a lot of money, but we must be clear about the cost of doing nothing our military’s ability to deter conflict will continue to weaken.” It probably won’t get all of it, as Trump’s own budget chief nominee South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney is a champion of the Budget Control Act that the report condemns and a longtime opponent of defense spending increases. How this dynamic plays out remains to be seen.
Another interesting conflict will be over how the Trump administration views the proper force posture of the US military. McCain’s report is peppered with references to the need to move away from asymmetric ‘low end’ warfare and toward ‘high end’ warfare with nation-state near-peers. Those of us who have been reading these reports long enough can remember the exact opposite line being taken by Congressional assessments in the 2000s, a policy pivot that back then spelled doom for pie-eyed conventional weapon schemes like the Future Combat System.
Speaking of pivots just where would this new military capability be needed? The McCain’s report obviously views Russia as a threat, deriding Obama’s reduction of permanent forces in Europe. But Trump is moving away from Cold War antagonism with Moscow. That would leave one just near-peer left: China. Depending on how the US-China relationship goes (and with talk of trade war and renegotiating the One China policy, things don’t look good), we may see the debate over force posture crystalize over the issue of containing China and countering Beijing’s recent moves in the South China Sea. That would have President Trump trying to breathe life into Obama’s (mostly rhetorical) Asia Pivot, and it would present a compelling reason to move forward with many of Senator McCain’s recommendations on how to restore military power in a country that still spends more than the next seven highest states combined.