By Sandra I. Erwin
Looming cuts to defense spending have the Pentagon and its contractors gripped by fear. The so-called fiscal cliff, however, should not distract the Defense Department from the pursuit of new weapons that it will need to fight future enemies, said William J. Lynn, former deputy defense secretary and currently the CEO of military contractor DRS Technologies.
“Our challenge is not just to protect national security and manage the slowdown, but to use our resources to shape the future of warfare as well,” Lynn said Dec. 5 at the U.S. Naval Institute 2012 Defense Forum in Washington, D.C.
The year-end fiscal cliff -- a mix of deep spending cuts and expiration of tax breaks -- could force the Defense Department to cut $500 billion over the next decade. Lynn said abrupt cuts such as sequestration can be harmful because they do not give the Pentagon enough time for careful planning. But he acknowledged that the Pentagon should not be exempt from cuts. "I agree with Adm. Mullen," said Lynn, referring to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who said two years ago that the nation's growing debt was the biggest threat to U.S. security. "No nation has lost its economic vitality and retained its military strength," said Lynn.
The United States, regardless of the outcome of the current budget stalemate, dwarfs the rest of the world in defense spending. The key question for the Pentagon is how it will invest its money wisely to confront the threats of the coming decades, Lynn said. “With half of all global spending for defense, we can use our investment in technology, combined with our doctrinal flexibility and the superiority of our fighting forces, to leap ahead,” he said. The United States, he added, must parlay its “still-formidable financial clout to widen the technology advantage.”
Historical trends of past defense downturns bode well for technology investments, said Lynn. Research-and-development funding usually plateaus during down cycles, he said. Procurement of new equipment does tend to drop more precipitously, but R&D does not collapse, he said. "I think you will see a similar pattern" in the coming years.
Lynn suggested several areas that merit attention. The Pentagon, he said, needs to acquire more flexible, less-lethal weapons to fight non-state enemies. “For centuries, lethality has followed a linear path, with the wealthiest nations wielding the greatest lethal power,” Lynn said. That model has become obsolete, however. “Terrorist groups with few resources can mount devastating attacks. Insurgents can defeat our advanced armor with fertilizer bombs. Rogue states seek nuclear weapons and criminals have world-class cyber capabilities,” Lynn said. “In fact, lethality at the low end of the economic spectrum can now rival that at the high end.”
The Pentagon does need fifth-generation stealth fighters and advanced helicopters, but it should still make sure it buys counter-IED (improvised explosive device) technology and has a skilled cadre of counter-terrorism specialists on the ground.
The U.S. military also should train forces to adapt to multiple forms of combat, Lynn said. “A future force might be required to rotate units throughout long deployments. Such a challenge would include planning for long-duration, low-intensity conflicts, as well as the high-end, hot kinetic phase,” he said. Estimating the right size and role for ground forces, said Lynn, is "one of the hardest questions we face."
Another priority is cyber warfare, Lynn said. Although the Defense Department has poured unprecedented resources into cybersecurity, more should be done to preempt attacks and prepare for highly damaging intrusions into military information networks.
“A small group of trained programmers, using off-the-shelf equipment, can develop a powerful offense that can be deployed with great effect and secrecy,” said Lynn. “If our networks are compromised, our adversaries could blind our satellites, jam our communications, hamper our logistics and make our smart bombs dumb again.”
It is no secret that nation states and many other groups are developing increasingly more advanced cyber weapons, he said. “We need to exceed their development and create offensive capabilities of our own as a deterrent.”
Defense planners have a “difficult job,” he said. “They have inherited an era when the information age is layered on top of the industrial revolution and the nuclear age all at once.”
Lynn recalled that, during his time as the Pentagon’s number-two civilian leader, he was put in the tough spot of having to project the future. “It is difficult to know where, when and who we will fight next,” he said. “In fact, my former boss, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, said we have a perfect record in this regard: we have never gotten it right.”
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.