The fast attack submarine Tucson, the guided-missile cruisers Lake Erie and Port Royal, and the guided-missile destroyer Chafee transit in waters near Hawaii in this 2011 file photo. (MC2 Mark Logico / US Navy)
WASHINGTON — It’s hard to find consensus on most anything in Washington D.C., but four national security-focused think tanks managed to forge something of a rough outline for the future of defense spending.
During a briefing held in the Dirksen Senate Office building on Wednesday, a group of well-known budgetary and strategic thinkers from the four think tanks coalesced around a roughly similar set of options for the Pentagon over the next decade: The venerable A-10 attack plane should be retired, along with the U2 spy plane and the F-18C/D models, while the Navy should lose two to four of its current aircraft carriers.
Hosted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, the event also featured the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Center for a New American Strategy (CNAS), and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The effort is the organization’s yearly attempt to game out the options being weighed by the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
While all four teams cut carriers and destroyers from the Navy’s arsenal — they only did so in order to preserve funding to add to the Navy’s submarines and also to replace the current carriers with newer models — keeping the industrial base happy—instead of giving mid-life overhauls to existing flattops.
While the number of carriers that the think tankers propose cutting varied from two to four (AEI with the most, and CSBA and CNAS the least), all — save CNAS — called for adding to the number of submarines floated in future budgets, while drastically increasing spending on satellites, cyber, and communications technologies.
The thinking is pretty clear with regard to how strategists conceive of the threat posed by China and other potential near-peer adversaries. Carriers, while they can project power like nothing else afloat, are vulnerable to coastal stand-off weapons and cannot launch nukes from relatively close in to the shore like submarines.
CSIS also called for selling Littoral Combat Ships and other advanced platforms to allies, while relying on the United Kingdom for some SSBN on-station requirements.
The think tank’s David Berteau explained that while “the QDR process historically has been silent on allies,” the current budget realities almost mandate that the United States rely more on allies where it can.
Planners at the Pentagon “should at least open the possibility for the QDR to be more robust in that regard” he said, adding that a deeper reliance on allies means that the U.S. will have to begin selling them some of the most advanced communications equipment currently being churned out by the American defense industry.
“We run the risk where the vision of interoperability gets harder and harder” because the gap between the U.S. and its partners “gets wider and wider” in coming years, he said.
This newfound embrace of allies was also heard from AEI’s Tom Donnelly, who floated the idea of “a garrison and forward positioning concept not dissimilar to what we have in Kuwait today,” with other allies, particularly those who are “front line states.”
Donnelly prioritized airfields around the Persian Gulf region, “with the northern Gulf in mind,” as an area where the U.S. should focus.
“We have to project power forward and swarm in ways that create a more robust form of deterrence,” he said, but lamented that “the [Pentagon] is having a hard time explaining to Congress the value of forward presence. We’re not going to build any big new bases overseas, but because of that we want to have the ability to use the bases of our friends and partners,” he added.
In keeping with the theme of forward presence from the sea, while also maintaining some land-based capabilities overseas, all of the participants underscored the need to continue to invest in a robust logistics tail to keep far-flung troops and their advanced equipment supplied and running.
CSBA’s Jim Thomas said that the U.S. should focus on adopting “new divisions of labor with allies” since “it’s going to be harder for us to project our military” due to the increasing sophistication of standoff weapons that have proliferated around the globe.
In their presentation, CSBA wrote that American allies should assume “greater responsibility as ‘first responders’ for own defense and create ‘friendly’ A2/AD to defend sovereignty and provide forward sanctuaries for U.S. forces.”
The think tank also advocates the expansion of the U.S. combat logistics fleet as well as growing the overseas submarine infrastructure to allow U.S. subs to be outfitted and repaired in foreign ports.
“If we’re going to have a smaller force it has to be more logistically capable,” Thomas said.