Loose Canons

Obama’s Helter-Skelter Strategy

Critics of the president's Pentagon cuts are missing the overriding problem with his military spending "plans."

By 1.30.12

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If you're wondering where to find the strategic thinking behind Obama's slashing of the military budget, you won't find it in Clausewitz, Kissinger, or David Galula. After days of searching, I think I found it lying at some unequal distance between the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" and the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." 

Obama's plan to slash $487 billion in Pentagon spending over ten years comes sandwiched between the $400 billion in cuts he made using Robert Gates as his knife and the possible sequestration of another $600 billion in cuts under last year's random results from the failed "supercommittee."

Congress and the pundit community have fallen into the political trap that these cuts pose. They are attacking the cuts by defending the constituencies -- individual military assets they favor, contractors in their states -- and losing the battle. They are losing because they don't argue against the underlying theories of the so-called "plans," none of which match the others.   

There are so many internal contradictions and inconsistencies in these "plans" that we should focus on them first and debate the budget numbers later. 

To do this, congressional Republicans need to look at the three statements of the plan issued by Obama and his administration. First was the 5 January "Sustaining Global Leadership" strategy issued by Obama which states his goals in refashioning our global military role. Second is the 26 January "Defense Budget Priorities and Choices" paper published by the Pentagon. In the middle was the president's State of the Union address. (Next month, when the Pentagon 2013 budget is actually submitted to Congress, there will be a fourth round of contradictions to analyze.)

There are too many contradictions and internal inconsistencies to review them all in one column. Just for starters, let's look at a few of the more glaring examples.

The 5 January "strategy" says that the Pentagon will be implementing "…the Joint Operational Access Concept, sustaining our undersea capabilities, developing a new stealth bomber, improving missile defenses, and continuing efforts to enhance the resiliency and effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities."

So how does the 26 January budget outline accomplish these objectives?

The Joint Operational Access concept, according to the Pentagon, means getting U.S. forces to the theater of battle and enabling them to move quickly within the theater. This is to be accomplished, according to the budget outline, by retiring 27 C-5A heavy airlifters and 65 older C-130s, and canceling the new Army C-27 tactical transport. Those reductions in airlift come on top of Obama's decision to stop production of the C-17 heavy airlifter.  

And all that ignores the question of how much airlift do we need?  Where is the study that shows the threats we have to meet, the forces we need to move to defeat them, and how much airlift we need to do it? The budget outline references "air mobility studies" in support of the cuts, but no such studies comparing the airlift requirement to the threat and how forces need to be moved to defeat them have been done in many years.

The "strategy" paper says we are going to sustain our undersea capabilities, which means kicking the budget can down the road, as accomplished in the budget outline. It says we'll delay those undersea capabilities indefinitely, beyond the "Future Years Defense Plan" that forecasts spending for six years. Among those assets delayed is a new Virginia class hunter-killer submarine. The replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines is also delayed for at least two years.  Do we need those assets sooner or later? Given the age of our current fleets, the answer is sooner because the threats they are meant to deter or defeat are not shrinking, particularly in the Asia-Pacific theater toward which Obama says we're "rebalancing."

That paper also says that we're going to have a new stealth bomber. But when?  It will take at least ten years to design, develop, and fly a prototype. Neither the "strategy paper" nor the budget outline says when we will have it, what it might cost or -- the critical question -- when we'll need it. Which means that Obama is giving lip service to the new bomber and looks forward to piddling funding at it without actually producing it.

The "strategy" also says we're going to enhance the resiliency and effectiveness of critical space-based assets. (I'm as tired of the air quotes as you are, dear reader, but Microsoft Word lacks a sarcasm font.) The budget outline funds upgrades for the Global Positioning Satellites, the Space-Based Infrared System, and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites.

All of those assets are important, and previous budget plans included them. But there's more. A lot more.

Our entire military and intelligence capabilities are built around a satellite infrastructure. Our "net-centric warfare" strategy, around which all of our military forces are built, relies on the instant communication, reconnaissance, and battle-management provided by satellites. Our intelligence community is just as dependent on satellites for imagery and other electronic intelligence gathering.

Right now there are hundreds of satellites in orbit, most of them top-secret in capabilities and many so secret that their existence is not disclosed. In the unclassified world, we know about the MILSTAR satellites that our forces depend on for jam-resistant communications at all levels, from the lowliest Marine squad leader to the national command center. They are -- as best we can make them -- protected against quickly-evolving cyberwar attacks. So is the Wideband Global SATCOM constellation of satellites that provides high-capacity communications to deployed forces.

Nothing in the budget paper says we will replace these assets, all of which are aging out. A satellite of these types -- and the classified ones -- routinely cost $1 billion each, take years to develop, and cost hundreds of millions to launch. How are we going to "enhance" our space-based assets?  We aren't, at least according to the Obama documents.

We won't be able to afford satellites, ships, or aircraft in part because Obama is diverting the defense budget to his "green energy" plans to starve us of energy. Forget drilling: in his State of the Union address, Obama said: "And I'm proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history -- with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year."

The Green Grifters will get money -- millions? billions? -- that could actually be spent on assets that kill people and break things. To sustain the Green Grifters, Obama is robbing our military of capabilities it needs.

Last, and not least, is the idea of "reversibility."  Panetta's budget outline says that it makes "… major adjustments in a way that best allows for their reversal or for regeneration of capabilities if future circumstances change." Really?

Obama has terminated production of the F-22, C-17, DDG-1000, and much more. When a production line is shut down, it's not kept in mothballs. It's broken up, people are reassigned, and factories are either emptied and sold or filled with machinery and people to build other products. If you want to resume production of one of those systems, you'll have to pay billions to do it, and spend the time it will take, which will be measured in five-year chunks.  Panetta's easy "reversal or regeneration" is a fantasy.

Obama's strategy and Pentagon budget will not produce the defense capabilities we need now or in the future. They may as well have been drafted by Paul McCartney and the late John Lennon:

Do, don't you want me to love you
I'm coming down fast but I'm miles above you
Tell me, tell me, tell me, come on tell me the answer
You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer.

Helter skelter, helter skelter
Helter skelter.

Obama may be a lover and a dancer, but he ain't no strategist.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.