US Defence Budget 2010: change and continuity under Obama
The Obama administration has sent its first defence budget, for fiscal 2010, to Congress for approval. This budget deserves to be carefully studied, if not for any definite direction it may set for US defence policy since it is only a few months since President Obama took office, then at least for the signals it sends as to how the US under Obama is likely to approach US military posture.
Notably, the 2010 budget cuts back or even cancels outright several major weapons programmes, marking a major shift in military hardware and hence in the kinds of missions the US expects to embark on, with significant implications in the medium-term. At the same time, the budget plan maintains the overwhelming US military superiority that has been the hallmark of US defence policy for the past few decades and explicitly articulated as such by the neo-conservatives.
The US defence budget for 2010 is a huge $663.8 billion, which is higher than the combined defence spending by the next nine of the top ten countries! The amount includes $533.8 billion for base defence expenditure and $130 billion for overseas operations mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan. The base budget is $20.5 billion or about 4 percent higher than last year.
So it is not that the US Defence Department is calling for a smaller military or for less defence expenditure but, as Defence Secretary Robert Gates put it, spending this huge amount “more wisely” from a US strategic viewpoint.
Four basic ideas can be discerned in the budget exercise. First, to pragmatically prioritise military acquisitions and related programmes in the context of current and actual foreseeable threats or conflict scenarios. Second, to cut the enormous amount of flab or excessive if not downright wasteful expenditure in the US military. Third, to promote greater transparency and accountability in military expenditures. And lastly, to place greater emphasis on troop welfare. Focus of this article is on the former two.
Major Anti-Missile Systems Scrapped Several major weapons systems that the different armed services, and of course the big defence equipment manufacturers, have been pushing for over the years have simply been scrapped, either in the development phase itself or in terms of further production. Most of these were high-technology advanced or even futuristic systems designed for total dominance over all possible adversaries beyond their foreseeable capabilities well into the 21st century.
Advanced missile or anti-missile systems have taken a major hit. Funding for the Missile Defense Agency has been cut by $1.4 billion or about 15 percent and at least one major programme has been eliminated.
Development of “Multiple Kill Vehicles” which are advanced interceptor missiles that release multiple “kill vehicles” to destroy an incoming missile and decoys it may release, has been terminated. The Pentagon appears to have finally accepted the widespread criticism of the very concept, since the new technology could be defeated by the simple ploy of multiplying the number of decoys.
Also scrapped are plans for a second Boeing 747 equipped with Airborne Laser technology, which would be used to destroy missiles in the boost phase of flight. It has been technically difficult and very expensive to build a laser powerful enough to destroy incoming missiles during the boost phase of their flight and yet light enough to make the weapon viable. The Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile systems by Raytheon and Lockheed, in which India had expressed interest, have also been curtailed, and funding for Northrop Grumman’s Kinetic Energy Interceptor has been withdrawn.
Several lawmakers in the US Congress have protested these cuts arguing that they undermine US defence preparedness especially at a time of greater perceived threat from North Korean and Iranian missiles. But Senator John McCain, the losing Republican presidential candidate against Barack Obama, strongly endorsed the custs as “necessary to shift spending away from weapon systems plagued by scheduling and cost overruns”, a salutary lesson Indian defence research and development agencies and their political masters could well draw upon. Dr.Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists not only welcomed the cuts but wanted further cutbacks in the missile defence programme due to their inherent unreliability “that gives you a false sense of security.” Good lesson again!
Cutbacks in advanced aircraft systems Several advanced military aircraft and related weapons systems have also either been scrapped at the development stage itself or have had their production programmes curtailed.
The most noteworthy of these is the decision to stop further large-scale production of the famous F-22 Raptor fighter. The F-22 is a futuristic fifth-generation fighter aircraft with stealth technology, high maneuverability and supersonic cruise capability, widely believed not to have any contemporary peers among the world’s air forces and capable of maintaining its air superiority for the next few decades. But it is also the US and the world’s most expensive fighter plane at a whopping $140 million per piece! The Pentagon has decided not to make any more aircraft than the 187 already built or committed, as against the 850 aircraft planned. Rationale advanced is that the F-22 Raptor is not likely to be useful in irregular combat scenarios as in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal areas, nor is it likely to be needed against any conceivable adversary whose weapons systems and capabilities can be tackled with other available or planned US fighter aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning which is being persisted with.
The same rationale, of weighing the actual necessity of highly advanced weapons systems in the light of evolving threat scenarios and capabilities of potential adversaries, rather than just continuing to develop ever better and more expensive systems, has also informed the decision to discontinue other military aviation projects.
So the development of a new long-range bomber aircraft has been terminated until, as the Budget proposal put it, “we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement and the technology”. The Budget instead provides $500 million for upgrading, and $700 million for development of new radars for, existing B-1, B-2 and Vietnam-era B-52 bombers.
The severity of these cuts can be gauged from the fact that the combat search-and-rescue helicopter, the new bomber and related systems have been in the top five acquisition priorities of the US Air Force for several years now.
Also axed are the development of the new VH-71 Presidential helicopters jointly by Lockheed Martin and Agusta Westland, cost of which was expected to double to $13 billion for 23 helicopters. A $15 billion Air Force competition for a new combat, search and rescue helicopter, designs for which have been under development for several years by Boeing, Lockheed and Sikorsky, has also been cancelled “while military requirements are being studied”. Instead, the US Air Force plans to spend $90 million for two Sikorsky HH-60M Pave Hawk helicopters to replenish the current search-and-rescue fleet. A programme for an alternative engine for the F-35 being developed jointly by General Electric and UK’s Rolls Royce, which has already received funding to the tune of $2.5 billion, has also been scrapped.
Future Combat System also axed One of the several big-ticket science-fiction- type programmes severely curtailed is the Army’s flagship Future Combat System (FCS). The FCS was to comprise futuristic ground combat vehicles, flying sensors and bomb-hunting robots together projected to cost around $160 billion. Funding of $87 billion for the combat vehicles being developed by Boeing and Science Applications International has been cancelled. While the FCS as a whole has been put aside, some individual items will continue such as small ground robots and drones which are expected to be deployed with the US Army fairly soon. Defence Department spokespersons have stated that these decisions were taken because the FCS comprising several over-ambitious systems was conceptualized with Russia and China in mind, for deployment in terrain and contexts where lightness and speed need emphasis (unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan), but “the realistic utility and potential for deployment in the near term is low.”
Restructuring not downsizing the US military All these cut-backs or even scrapping of major new weapons development programmes are indeed significant but should be seen in the proper perspective. They should be viewed against the backdrop of the recent Presidential campaign and positions of the Obama camp, some noteworthy differences between the gung-ho militarism of the neo-conservatives and the approach of the Democrats and others towards military and security affairs, and the experience of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What we are witnessing, and what the 2010 US Defence Budget indicates, is not a reversal of US militarism but a more pragmatic restructuring of the US military in the prevalent geo-political context and especially given the current economic downturn affecting the US.
Some of the budget proposals are in keeping with President Obama’s campaign promises to rationalize defence expenditure especially in operational theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan, minimize wastage and enhance spending on welfare of personnel. The 2010 Budget places most Iraq and Afghanistan operational expenses in a special category in the base budget rather than in supplementaries, thus promoting greater transparency and accountability. Troop welfare, health care, insurance and other benefits have been enhanced and also placed in the base budget. These are indeed departures from previous practice particularly under President Bush, what has attracted attention both within the US and abroad are the implications of the cuts and proposed expenditures on military programmes.
It must be underlined that the various cuts, however significant in themselves, do not amount to a downsizing of the US military or a reduction in its aggressive global posture.
As already mentioned, the proposed defence expenditure for 2010 is larger than last year. And while several big-ticket military acquisitions have been cancelled, many more have been either retained or expanded.
For instance, whereas some new missile defence projects have been scrapped, the US is far from giving up on anti-missile systems. The 2010 budget provides for an increase of $700 million for the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the Standard Missile 3, and an additional $200 million for ballistic missile defense systems on battleships. “We will continue to robustly fund continued research and development to improve the capability we already have to defend against long-range rogue missile threats,” said Gates, specifically referring to North Korea’s missile launch last month.
Similarly, $431 million in seed money has been provided for a revamped competition to design an aerial refueling aircraft between Boeing and Northrop, expected to decide a winner in mid-2010 on whom orders will be placed. Major spending increases include $2 billion on intelligence and reconnaissance, $500 million to field and maintain helicopters, and funds to augment Special Operations Forces and their support aircraft.
Despite the hyper rhetoric of the neo-cons, a realization was gradually dawning in the second term of the Bush administration that the US military was bloated, somewhat outdated and required restructuring. Even the much-reviled former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was replaced by the present incumbent Robert Gates in the last years of the Bush Presidency, argued for a more flexible and contextually appropriate military but could not or did not try hard enough to overcome the entrenched defence bureaucracy and senior military commanders hankering after the latest gadgets.
As a result, the Quadrennial Defence Review of 2006 (QDR 2006) preserved every major weapons system already under development or production, and just added more projects to deal with the new challenges posed by irregular combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. QDR 2006 reflected the dominant neocon thinking that the US military must be capable of being everywhere and taking on all possible opponents and that, therefore, the US military should be “capabilities-driven” rather than “threat-driven.”
QDR 2006 was vigorously critiqued by many strategic thinkers and especially by Democratic think-tanks and law-makers. Present US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that the 2010 budget recommendations are the “product of a holistic assessment of capabilities, requirements, risks and needs for the purpose of shifting this department in a different strategic direction” and that the US will “examine all of our strategic requirements during the [next] Quadrennial Defense Review.” The Pentagon, he said, wants to move away from both outdated weapons systems conceived in the Cold War and futuristic programmes aimed at super-sophisticated foes.
Opposition expected But one should expect stiff opposition to the 2010 budget which has now to be approved by the US Congress and to the general thinking behind it.
Many right-wing commentators and think-tanks are already up in arms against the various cutbacks especially in anti-missile systems. Lawmakers will come under increasing pressure from large armaments companies as well as numerous downstream companies involve with defence contracts. It is believed that defence-related companies in 44 States in the US will be adversely affected and hundreds of thousands of jobs may be lost, putting further pressure on elected representatives in recession-hit America. Watch out for the military-industrial complex to strike back!