Defense Notebook: ‘Comprehensive’ review hints emerge

Pentagon officials provided few details this week about a comprehensive national security review that will help officials identify ways to begin cutting $400 billion by 2023.

President Obama announced the strategy assessment and the national security spending cuts goal during a broader April 13 speech in which he called for trimming the federal deficit by $4 trillion. He placed the Pentagon in charge of that study. 

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In the first public appearances by senior Pentagon officials since the announcement, it became clear that initial findings are months away. That means defense observers could have to wait until the Pentagon’s 2013 budget plan is unveiled next February before they learn what kinds of things will be eliminated.

Gates: Avoid a ‘hollow military’

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Thursday during a Pentagon briefing he does not want the pursuit of the $400 billion reduction goal to become a math exercise that leads to a “hollow” force.

“The worst of all possible worlds, in my view, is to give the entire Department of Defense a haircut, basically says everybody is going to cut X percent,” Gates said. “That’s the way we got the hollow military in the 1970s and in the 1990s. And so I want to frame this so that options and consequences and risks are taken into account as they — as budget decisions are made, first by the president and then by the Congress.”

The outgoing defense secretary said his intention is to set up a review “that is driven by the analysis” that examines “missions that our elected officials decide we should not have to perform or … can’t perform anymore because we don’t have the resources.”

By lining up options and looking at the “consequences and risks” of each, Gates hopes “people can make well-thought-out decisions.”

Some Republican lawmakers, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), have questioned highlighting a dollar amount to cut before the review has even started.

Lawn-care contractors, beware

As Pentagon officials look for ways to trim the annual defense budget, DOD acquisition chief Ashton Carter said Wednesday that some major weapon programs might meet the budgetary ax.

But he suggested DOD would find most of its amount of the $400 billion from other parts of the annual defense budget, such as paying private contractors to do things like “cutting the grass.”

"Programs are not where the money is," Carter said, saying the department's procurement account is only one-seventh of the entire defense budget. "We need to take a comprehensive look at all of our spending.”

The next day, Gates made clear the Pentagon will protect some of its most urgently needed combat systems.

“We have some investments that we have to make,” the defense chief said. “We have to buy the new tanker. We have to replace some of the surface ships that will age out — that were built in the Reagan years and that will age out during this 12-year period.

“All elements of the triad need to be modernized,” Gates said, referring to the nation’s nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, submarine-launched missiles and land-based missiles. “You may have to make some choices there.” 

A ‘mini-QDR’?

Gen. James Cartwright added a twist to talk about the comprehensive study, saying it will begin with some broad questions that could alter military planning doctrine.

Some defense insiders have speculated that DOD leaders are preparing to conduct a mini-Quadrennial Defense Review.

That study is conducted by the department every four years and is intended to spell out how the military views the global threat environment, explain which missions are its top priorities and provide the planning and strategic tactics for meeting those requirements.

“There’s another element to this in the strategy side of it, and that is: What is it you want to be able to do, and then how much of it do you want to be able to do?” Cartwright asked rhetorically during the same Pentagon briefing.

Those kinds of questions will allow officials to determine “quantities and capabilities” of weapon systems, Cartwright added. “Historically, the department has [used] the two major-theater war construct,” he said, meaning sizing its combat force to be able to fight two major ground wars simultaneously.

“Where do we want to be on that, and then what are the implications of any changes in that,” Cartwright added, “are important questions to ask up front.”