America can manage and equip our defense enterprise at lower cost

America can manage and equip our defense enterprise at lower cost
© Greg Nash

Given the funding required to fight COVID-19 and prop up our ravaged economy, the fiscal cupboard is bare. To start to bring the national budget back under control, the incoming Biden administration should act immediately to effect changes in the way our defense enterprise is managed and equipped to ensure key national security interests are protected at lower cost.  

Numerous military leaders have stated that there is not enough money in the current or projected budgets to fund all their requirements while also implementing force modernization plans. The current fiscal environment rules out increasing the Department of Defense (DOD) budget, but there are changes in policy and DOD management processes that can redirect significant defense spending to high-priority programs.  

Where short-term savings can be found:


Cancel the decision to move U.S. troops out of Germany. This decision was made out of pique with the German leadership because President TrumpDonald Trump Pence said he's 'proud' Congress certified Biden's win on Jan. 6 Americans put the most trust in their doctor for COVID-19 information: poll OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden administration to evacuate Afghans who helped US l Serious differences remain between US and Iran on nuclear talks l US, Turkish officials meet to discuss security plans for Afghan airport MORE apparently did not understand the full range of German host nation support for U.S. and NATO forces. No strategy underwrites this decision, and estimates show it would be expensive to implement and disruptive to our European defense planning. Canceling this ill-conceived decision would save significant defense funds. 

Our nuclear forces need to be modernized, but we don’t need as many of them. The Biden administration should ensure that we don’t overspend on nuclear weapons and divert the money saved to fund badly needed, modernized, conventional capabilities. The massive buildup in nuclear weapons in the proposed 2021 DOD budget should be reevaluated. The current plan to modernize all three legs of the Strategic Triad — intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and long-range bombers — at the same numbers we currently deploy is wasteful. We should reduce our deployed warheads from the 1,550 allowed under current treaty limits to 1,000. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has laid out a comprehensive plan to reduce to 1,000 deployed warheads, a level the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified in 2010 would be adequate to support our deterrence strategy, and that would save tens of billions of dollars.   

Our defense acquisition system is broken and a new approach to procurement is needed. Congress has incrementally legislated a brain-numbing slate of rules and regulations that no one fully understands, which have created a virtual straitjacket for procurement officers. Small contractors cannot afford the platoon of specialized legal experts needed to penetrate the paper wall to bid successfully. Congress created this problem and legislation should be drafted to rationalize the entire acquisition system. In the meantime, we should start buying more “off the shelf.”

Buying more off-the-shelf capabilities to meet our modernization and equipping needs can provide immediate savings. If industry or allies have a “good enough” capability, we should buy it. An example is the Army’s recent effort to procure a new handgun. Why spend almost a decade with complex military specifications at high unit costs to buy such a low-end weapon?  As the Army chief of staff pointed out, this program had a 367-page requirement document. Send a qualified team to several reliable gun makers and buy the one that is good enough.

Where longer-term savings can be found:


Realign uniformed service roles and missions to reduce wasteful duplication of effort and capabilities. We have not had a comprehensive review of service roles and missions since 1948.  Consequently, the services are spending money to pay for redundant capabilities and inefficient force structures. A roles and missions review is where questions are asked, such as “How many drone systems do we need, and should every agency have its own?” Drones are an example of military procurement run amok, with all the services developing their own drones and support organizations. The high-tech modernization efforts happening now will result in more drone examples if a roles and missions division of effort among the services doesn’t guide investment decisions.   

Get back into the arms control business

Regarding nuclear arms control, agree with Russia to extend the New START Treaty and immediately enter into a negotiation to reduce the number of deployed warheads from the currently authorized 1,550 to 1,000. Both the U.S. and Russia are below the allowed levels now. Reducing to 1,000 warheads deployed on eight Ohio Class submarines, 150 ICBMs, and long-range bombers, as the CBO analysis mentioned above recommends, would save billions of dollars by eliminating four submarines and 250 deployed ICBMs — which also would reduce significantly the cost of modernizing both these systems.   

On space arms control, it’s time to address issues raised by the increasing drift toward the militarization of space. Space is a place where billions of defense dollars can evaporate quickly and result in more threats to be concerned about. Pentagon buzzwords already characterize space as a “contested domain,” and some consider actual warfighting in space to be an inevitability. Already, there are weapons that can be targeted against space-based assets from non-space domains. Russia and China are believed to have demonstrated ground-based capabilities to attack satellites, and India did so last year.   

If the current drift toward organizing and equipping to wage war in space continues, Russia, China and others will develop their capabilities to destroy U.S. space assets. This will greatly increase the threat to the full array of U.S. space-based assets upon which DOD is dependent for command and control of military operations. Weaponizing space could become a case of trying to solve one problem while creating a much worse problem. 

In 2019, the United Nations agreed a set of norms for space faring nations. But they are non-legally binding measures and don’t address weaponizing space. China and Russia are proposing mechanisms for space arms control at the U.N., and the U.S. should cooperate in this effort. A legally binding international treaty banning the basing of weapons in space should be the objective.

John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel with a military career spanning 45 years, with significant time in a variety of Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. He earned his doctorate in comparative defense policy analysis.