Kendall: U.S. Military Dominance Threatened by Budget Chaos and Pentagon Inefficiency

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. military could soon fall behind in the arms technology race. Potential adversaries are modernizing at a surprisingly fast pace while the Pentagon’s weapon programs remain bogged down in budget quagmires.

That is what keeps Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall up at night, he said Feb. 25.

“It's a very competitive game,” he told an industry conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the consulting firm McAleese & Associates and Credit Suisse.

Kendall, who oversees Pentagon weapons acquisitions, is not concerned about land wars, as he believes U.S. ground forces would be able to overwhelm any potential foe. But he fears countries such as China and Russia are quickly developing advanced weapons for air and naval warfare — including smart missiles and electronic jamming devices — that could cripple U.S. aircraft and ships, and neutralize military satellites that provide essential communications and navigation. 

“We need to sustain the capability to control the air, to ensure our ships at sea are survivable, to protect our bases and logistics nodes, to defend space,” Kendall said.

Defense Department leaders know what they could be up against in a future war, but the budget battles of the past several years have sucked the oxygen out of the Pentagon’s innovation machine, Kendall noted. The U.S. military should be developing new air-to-air missiles, ship defenses and technologies to control space, and although programs are in place to do that, they are being held back by the budgetary back-and-forth that has gripped Washington for several years. “As I watch what goes on, I get nervous” about the U.S. ability to maintain technological superiority over the next 10 to 15 years, he said. “I don't think we can be complacent about this.”

A combination of fiscal uncertainty and Pentagon institutional inertia makes a dangerous combination, he said.

Kendall cautioned that he is not necessarily predicting the United States will go to war against China or Russia, although he frets about China “flexing its muscles.” Both countries, though, are ramping up their arms industries and aggressively exporting weapons, he said, which means their technologies could end up anywhere.

Although these are “things that make me nervous today, I still think that U.S. forces are dominant today,” he said. “I’m watching carefully what’s being fielded. We’ve got work to do. We have to stop the presumption that we’re superior and have a wide margin of superiority. That’s not true anymore.”

Critics often snub China’s automobile manufacturing, said Kendall, “but [the Chinese] can build really good missiles and airplanes and space control capabilities,” said Kendall. “I don’t think we can be complacent.”

The Pentagon, despite recent rounds of budget cuts, still has a formidable weapons research, development and procurement annual budget of more than $160 billion. But the acquisition process is byzantine and slow. “Technology superiority is not assured,” said Kendall. “You have to work at it.” When research programs are delayed, the consequences could be significant, he added. “Time cannot be recovered.”

Kendall acknowledged that the Pentagon’s technology shop has been rattled by the budget up-and-downs, and especially by the threat of sequestration. “We’re having problems dealing with uncertainty,” and many programs have been put on hold in hopes that Congress will roll back the strict spending caps of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The Pentagon has argued that the law mandates reductions that are too steep and abrupt for the military to handle. Before sequestration went into effect in March 2013, said Kendall, “We had a sound budget and a sound strategy that we submitted for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.” In the budget proposal for 2015, the Pentagon is having to adjust to the fiscal reality. “We still think sequestration is the wrong course of action…. It leads to inefficiency,” he said. “The single biggest problem is the uncertainty of how much money we’re going to have. It leads to false starts.”

A case in point is the Army’s recently terminated Ground Combat Vehicle, which up until a year ago was dubbed a “top modernization priority” by the Army. Kendall conceded that the program was easy to justify when budgets were larger but that is not the case anymore. “We were looking at different projections for the budget when we did the affordability study three years ago,” he said. “When sequestration was imposed, everything we did made us more inefficient” as every technology program got a haircut. “We have to get out of this environment,” he said.

The Pentagon’s inherent inefficiency is exacerbated by unstable budgets, he said. “It takes a certain amount of time to take a system into the field. That hasn't changed very much over the years, it’s driven by the complexity of our systems.” Because it can take 10 to 15 years for the Pentagon to bring weapons to fruition, research investments needed to counter China or others have to be made now, said Kendall. “If you haven't done the R&D, you will see the consequences 10 to 15 years down the road.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, International

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