Defense Budget: The Other Shoe Hasn’t Dropped Yet
The nation’s fiscal crisis being what it is, the Defense Department may be asked to take an even bigger hit, and senior officials are preparing for the worst, said Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Cartwright, who has been closely overseeing long-term budgets and weapon-acquisition plans, will be stepping down August 3 when his term as vice chairman ends, and will retire from active duty in September.
“I’m certainly doing budget drills beyond $400 billion,” Cartwright told reporters July 14. Even though the target is $400 billion, the responsible thing to do is to anticipate, and to try to predict the consequences of even deeper cuts, he said. “We’re doing due diligence.”
Cartwright said these budget drills were not mandated by the White House, but initiated by the Joint Staff as a precautionary move. There are worries about bigger cuts, he said. “Is there another $400 billion behind the first $400 billion?”
Larger magnitude cuts only could be achieved, at the earliest, after 2020, he said. During the next three years, the only major reductions that could realistically be made are in operations and training. The following three years, the Pentagon would have to let people go, particularly in the active-duty force, and possibly shift more responsibilities to the National Guard, Reserves — and even consider the unthinkable, a draft. “Each option has different costs,” Cartwright said. Beyond the six-year mark, there would be an opportunity to shed bases, facilities, and to go after many programs that currently are viewed as sacred cows, such as military retirement and health benefits. That would require changes in the law, and could take years to negotiate.
On the weapons side, nothing has been off the table in the most recent rounds of fiscal wargaming. Even the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers, which former Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested would besheltered from the budget ax, are now in play. “We are looking at the strategy,” Cartwright said. “What is the right mix of big-deck and small-deck carriers? How much needs to be at sea? … All those questions are on the table right now.”
Cartwright even hinted that the Marine Corps’prized F-35B vertical-takeoff combat jet is being scrutinized by the green-eyeshade crowd.
“If we don’t have an F-35B, might there be an unmanned aircraft” that can operate from amphibious ships? he asked. These are important questions, he said. “How much change do you want to invest in? How much cutting edge technology do you want to bet on?” he added. “We are looking at all options.”
More than 20 years ago, Cartwright was involved in writing the initial requirements for the F-35, he said. “It was going to be the ‘cheap fighter.’”