In the age of austerity, the Pentagon faces a choice it did not have to face in the last decade: “The fundamentals of the choices come down to people or machinery,” said Yochi Dreazen, senior national security correspondent for the National Journal, in an interview with the DorobekINSIDER.
In the end, the choice boils down to the future of war itself, Dreazen wrote:
One school of thought holds that conflicts won’t change much over time, and that the United States will likely find itself waging other troop-heavy counterinsurgencies, perhaps in Yemen or Pakistan. If so, the Pentagon would need to maintain-or even expand-the size of its ground-combat forces.
The other school of thought posits that U.S. forces may be headed for a more conventional campaign against the rapidly modernizing Chinese military. If the two superpowers came into conflict over Taiwan, for instance, ground-combat power would be irrelevant; victory would come down to which nation could field more advanced jets, ships, and other high-tech weaponry.
Dreazen told the DorobekINSIDER that these trade-off decisions – people vs. machinery – were always part of DoD budget choices prior to Sept. 11, 2001. But since the 9/11 attacks, the DoD could continue spending in both areas as the budget more than doubled in the next ten years.
Dreazen said DoD’s best-case scenario is budget growth will stop in the next two years. The worst-case scenario — which Dreazen said is more likely – is that defense spending will be cut.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon would save $78 billion over the next five years by reducing the rate of growth in each of its next two budgets and avoiding hikes in fiscal 2015 and 2016.
Some of the program cuts will be obvious – like the vertical take-off Osprey aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. The aircraft is “exceptionally cool,” said Dreazen, who has been in one. However, it is also “very expensive, hard to maintain and crashes a lot.”
He said F-22 fighter planes and some marine vehicles could be cut as well.
However, Dreazen added, “Cuts at the margin” won’t be enough to make a dent in cost-savings.
“You’re talking about very, very big cuts coming that are far larger than what Gates said he wants and far larger I think than we as a country thought might come as these wars wind down,” Dreazen said.
Dreazen said he has heard some analysis that DoD needs to cut “tens of thousands” of troops, even as many as 275,000.
Some military personnel will also see what Gates calls “modest” increases to premiums for the military’s health care system, TRICARE. The increase would apply to working-age military retirees. TRICARE premiums have not increased in the past 15 years. Dreazen said currently a family of four in the health care system pays only $495 per year, several times more than private sector health care premiums.
Long considered immune to cuts, defense spending is the subject of debate not only between the political parties but now within the Republican Party too. Dreazen describes two types of GOP lawmakers: One will cut anything before cutting defense, and the other says, “Everything is on the table.”
At the same time, legislators face the reality that “defense contractors are enormously powerful on Capitol Hill,” Dreazen said.
Anticipating budget cuts, defense contractors are “preemptively firing people,” Dreazen said. Contractors are also “reselling” older, cheaper weapons that have been improved and expanding their business to overseas markets, he said.