The days of big spending at the Pentagon are over. That’s the message several current and former military leaders laid before a San Diego audience recently.
The Pentagon must develop “a cost culture which we didn’t have over the last 10 years,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, who, prior to retirement last year, was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Every single dollar matters,” Mullen said.
The cutbacks come as Congress tries to rein in the U.S. deficit and as military leaders plan to leave Afghanistan.
“Over the next 10 years, there’s going to be an awful lot that’s going to happen,” Mullen said. “It’s going to be a pretty bumpy ride.” Mullen made his remarks at the San Diego Convention Center on the opening day of West 2012, the joint conference of AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. AFCEA stands for Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
The big question among those in attendance — just what the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 spending plan contains — had to wait. At least one senior leader said he knew, but that information was embargoed until the spending plan was formally introduced. Mullen told his audience they would learn more during the weeks ahead.
Mullen spoke of a plan to cut $487 billion in defense spending between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2018. He called the cuts “hard but manageable.”
It’s “the next $500 billion” that concerns him, Mullen said during a question-and-answer session. “The next $487 billion has a good chance of breaking us.”
In wide-ranging remarks, Mullen advocated for a strong defense and cybersecurity. “I believe that cyber is an existential threat to our country,” the retired admiral said.
Mullen told executives in the audience that he was curious about how many veterans they had hired. “Whatever your number is, double it or triple it,” he said. Veterans, he said at another point, “are unbelievably capable people.”
Time to Think
Vice Adm. John Terence Blake said during an earlier panel discussion that he is concerned about sequestration, the process of cutting billions of dollars in defense spending to get the federal budget in balance.
“We’re going to have some real challenges,” said Blake, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources. “It’s not going to be business as usual.”
Blake said that when people ask him to save a particular program, his reply is, “I can invest in anything. Tell me where you want to divest.”
Asked how the Navy might meet its challenges with a smaller budget, Blake used the words of Royal Navy Adm. Jackie Fisher, who lived a century ago. “There is no more money,” Fisher said. “It is time to think.”
Blake added that he is concerned about maintaining the nation’s industrial capacity if the Pentagon shuts down manufacturing programs. It is tough to restart manufacturing once it stops, he said.
One member of the audience asked whether the Pentagon should get rid of a new aircraft model, the U.S. Marine Corps version of the F-35.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese gave an emphatic no.
There are three versions of the advanced F-35 Lightning II fighter, built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and billed as one of the costliest weapons program ever. The F-35B is built on the same basic airframe as the F-35A designed for the Air Force. The version designed for the Marines is configured to enable short takeoffs and vertical landings in the manner of a Harrier jump jet. This so-called STOVL configuration allows the aircraft to operate out of confined, unimproved airfields or off of smaller aircraft carriers.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the F-35B “on probation” one year ago because of a series of missed deadlines in testing prototypes of the aircraft. His successor, Leon Panetta, recently took the F-35B off probation.
Unmatched Capabilities of F-35B
“The single most important program in the Marine Corps today is the F-35B,” said Spiese, deputy commanding general of the Camp Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force. The general said he has seen the effectiveness of Harriers during wartime and that their capabilities are “unmatched.”
Blake said that while he can’t publicly discuss the 2013 budget, “the Navy and Marine Corps are committed” to the F-35. The Navy is developing the F-35C variant of the aircraft, the third version of the airplane.
During a panel discussion on shipbuilding later in the afternoon, panelists spoke of extending the life of existing U.S. Navy destroyers to 45 years.
If the Pentagon extends the life of its ships, “you’d probably better start thinking about treating them better now,” one panelist said.
That may bode well for San Diego’s ship repair businesses.
Derry Pence, CEO of the Port of San Diego Ship Repair Association, said the Navy has been considering extending service life for a while, and that “… if the decision is to keep ships longer, the expectation is that the maintenance accounts will remain robust in the future.
“It will also be interesting to see what decisions are made in the way of modernization of these ships,” Pence said via email.
Pence added that he was heartened to hear that the Navy will retain 11 aircraft carriers in its fleet, and that San Diego may once again be home port to three of them by 2016.
The news about maintaining 11 carrier strike groups came from the top. Defense Secretary Panetta announced it after riding a helicopter out to the USS Enterprise in the Atlantic Ocean.