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Evaluating the “strategic choices” of teams assembled by the CSBA

This past summer, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) assembled seven teams composed of 10 “defense insiders” each. These “defense insiders” were Congressional staffers from both parties and both houses of Congress, representatives of the defense industry, and representatives of several Washington think-tanks. (What think-tanks or who exactly was invited has not been disclosed.)

Each of the teams was asked how would it distribute $519 bn in additional defense cuts as an alternative to sequestration; in other words, how would they make cuts of size similar to the sequester’s, but in a targeted manner rather than the salami-slicing approach of the sequester mechanism.

The seven teams did take different approaches to this process. Two (Teams A and B) chose to reinvest most of what they could reinvest in air and naval capabilities, specifically, long range strike aircraft, submarines and unmanned submersibles, cyber capabilities, and Special Operations units.

The other five teams also reinvested most of what they did reinvest in those capabilities, but on a smaller scale, and their cuts to ground units (in the active and reserve components of the Army and the USMC) were also smaller. Indeed, Teams C, D, and E did not make cuts or reinvestments as aggressive as those of Teams A and B, while Teams F and G spread their cuts roughly proportionally, in a traditional Pentagonesque fashion, which would result roughly in the same kind of military as today, just much smaller. In other words, they made the mistake of trying to recreate the force for yesterday’s wars, rather than building the kind of military needed for tomorrow like Team A did.

Of all teams, A and E did the best job. Team A avoided any cuts in air- or seapower, instead making deep cuts in the ground force and the number of DOD civilians, while Team E made only modest cuts in the USAF and the Navy. Both of them made only tiny cuts in America’s nuclear deterrent – and both compensated for it with new investments in the deterrent. Both of them made significant reductions in the ground force.

This is because these two teams likely recognized that in future wars, air- and sea-power, not ground troops, will play the decisive role. Accordingly, both of them spared the USAF and the USN from any deep cuts (or in Team A’s case, from any cuts at all) and chose to cut the ground force and DOD civilians instead. (It should be noted, however, that other teams elected to deeply cut ground troops and DOD civilians as well.)

However, such approach is not without risk, and even Teams A and E’s proposals are not without flaws. These are:

  • The country could inadvertently be drawn into a new ground war in the future. The US should, of course, strive to avoid this, but someday, it may be unavoidable.
  • All teams’ proposals cut the Marine Corps too deeply – some of them down to just 150,000 troops. That would make the USMC unable to handle even one major contingency, according to USMC leaders; moreover, USMC commandant James F. Amos has recently said that if he were to meet all requirements of Combatant Commanders, he would have to quadruple the Marines’ expenditionary units. Moreover, the Marine Corps offers a unique capability to fight simoultaneously on land, in the air, and at sea, and a unique amphibious assault capability, which other services don’t offer and cannot replicate.
  • Their proposals might (details have not been released) cut ground force modernization too deeply.
  • Their proposals might cut the F-35 program too deeply. While the F-35 program is not a priority, it is nonetheless more or less necessary to recapitalize the fighter fleets of three American services, which currently consist of obsolete, unsurvivable aircraft. OTOH, to be fair to the teams, the F-35 is stealthy only from some aspects and only in the S/X/Ku-bands and has a short combat radius (no more than 615 nm in the C variant’s case). It needs to take the back seat to long range strike capabilities.
  • Their proposals cut, to various degree, missile defense systems.

Overall, while the purpose of this CSBA exercise and the resulting report was to show that deep defense budget cuts can be done safely, this exercise and this CSBA report have inadvertently done the opposite: they have demonstrated that additional cuts as deep as 519 bn USD cannot be done safely without significantly weakening the military.

For other rebuttals of the CSBA’s exercise and report, please see Heritage Foundation experts’ remarks here and here.

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