Slow Pace of Modernization a Vicious Cycle

By Craig R. McKinley
Last month, I discussed the national security challenges that will be inherited by the new president upon taking office in January. I stated that they were, indeed, daunting problems — and they are.  

And although the new president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, an enumerated power provided in the constitution, the choices to be made will be shaped by and presented by the new Pentagon leadership team. I hope both campaigns have begun serious efforts to identify this leadership, one that will truly have to hit the ground running to repackage the fiscal year 2018 budget submission that will certainly be left “on the table” for them.

Whoever this leadership is, from whatever party, it will encounter two distinct but related problems: readiness and modernization. Let’s consider some recent comments about readiness first.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, stated that, “Twenty-five years of continuous combat, coupled with budget instability and lower-than-needed top lines, has made the Air Force the smallest, oldest and the least ready in its history.”

Deptula, who played a central role in planning the highly successful Operation Desert Storm air campaign, noted that today’s Air Force has one-third fewer personnel and 60 percent fewer combat fighter squadrons. Moreover, the squadrons themselves have 25 percent fewer aircraft.

The Marine Corps has a similar problem. Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis has stated that due to a shortage of combat-ready aircraft, Marine pilots, particularly fighter pilots, are not getting the flight hours they need to be fully trained and ready.

These problems are occurring at a time when our air forces are being heavily used in the fight against the Islamic State, while continuing other missions around the world. In short, we have the old story compounding itself: fewer people, in fewer units, are being asked to do more to meet the current threat, in aircraft that are — in Deptula’s words — increasingly “geriatric.” In fact, the average age of the Air Force’s combat aircraft inventory has more than doubled from 12 to 25 years.  How many of us are comfortable driving to work in a car built in 1991?

As for the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson testified before Congress in the spring that the sea service is facing readiness problems as it returns to “great power competition” for the first time in 25 years. China and Russia are increasingly challenging the United States as it seeks to keep sea lanes open for trade. In that light, the Navy is taking a second look at whether its goal of maintaining a fleet of 308 ships will be enough.

Meanwhile, the Navy is still catching up on depot work that suffered as a result of sequestration and hiring freezes.

Readiness is, therefore, an immediate concern. But the underlying problem is the slow pace of the modernization programs that will provide new equipment and reduce the average age of the inventory — for combat vehicles and ships as well as aircraft.

When the Reagan administration took office, it launched a military build-up that was essentially a modernization increase. It moved quickly to procure the systems that were being developed in the Carter administration. During its first five years in office, in constant terms the Reagan defense team kept personnel costs relatively flat, but increased expenditures on modernization, which is research and development plus procurement, by over 60 percent. When Desert Storm came, that war was fought with a new, very fresh capital stock. Our problem today is that the Desert Storm equipment is now a quarter-century old, exists in fewer numbers, and has been used with greater intensity over the past decade.

Clearly, something has to give. Intensely deploying steadily aging equipment without steadily replacing it is unsustainable. But projected budgets out to 2021 do suggest that this dilemma will not be addressed. The current budget projections for 2011 — when we largely left Iraq — to 2021 show a planned 20 percent constant dollar reduction in modernization. And, keep in mind that these figures, taken from the 2017 Pentagon budget, reflect levels exceeding those allowed by the Budget Control Act caps. This expenditure profile will inevitably keep us on the current pathway of decreasing readiness, combined with increasing equipment age, which will lead to further loss of readiness. This is indisputably a vicious cycle that has to be confronted.

So, there is the basic challenge for the new administration. The Budget Control Act caps do not adequately provide for a defense effort that is aligned with the current strategic environment, one with serious challenges posed by non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, and disturbing potentials and trends of state actors such as Russia and China.

Following its seizure of Crimea, Russia has been described as on a path that is “revisionist and reckless,” while other recent reports suggest that China may be shifting to a posture that will be more aggressive in an effort to sustain economic growth, increase market share and secure access to essential raw materials.

The next U.S. government leader has a major decision to make: are we going to recognize and adjust to this environment, or let it continue in its current direction and hope for the best?

This is a most difficult decision having dimensions of equal gravity in the areas of military policy, strategy development, budget formulation and industrial readiness and capacity. It is relatively easy to describe the problem, as many have, but it’s much more difficult to craft a solution. I hope the next administration is up to the task.

Topics: Defense Department, Contracting, Defense Contracting

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