Friday, January 27, 2012

The US Defense cuts and budget priorities

The US Defense Budget preview has been released, and it is now possible to see where the cuts are heading: as i expected, the cut to the US Marines is big, but not at all substantial. Generally, the Navy and Marines are the services who get the best deal. The cuts announced are:

US Army
-          Cancellation of the HUMVEE recapitalization and modernization plan, judged surplus to requirement. Funding will be directed towards the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, to be developed in collaboration with the US Marines. This effectively reverses some decisions in the past years that favored the opposite approach by funding hummer modernization over the new JLTV.
-          Reduction of funding to the Ground Combat Vehicle
-          Manpower will go down from the peak of 570.000 in 2012 to 490.000 in the next five years
-          At least 8 Brigade Combat Teams will be cut, from 45 to 37. This still represents a larger Army than the 2003 force (33 BCTs). In addition, the US Army will be considering the space of maneuver for exploiting these cuts in order to reinforce the existing BCTs by adding a third maneuver unit (All BCTs save for Stryker brigades have only 2 maneuver battalions). The cuts seem set to hit almost exclusively the Regular force.
-          A number of bases surplus to requirement will be closed.
-          2 Heavy BCTs are to leave Europe and be replaced by a rotational presence

-          The 2007 expansion in manpower for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is being cancelled by a 20.000 soldiers cut that will bring the Corps back to their previous strength of 182.000
-          The long term plan is to keep up the number and force of the amphibious fleet, with no reductions in the requirements. However, Fiscal Year FY2013 will see a one year delay placed on the acquisition of one LHA, delaying LHA-7 from 2016 into 2017. In addition, two older LSD-41s will be retired without immediate replacement.
-          The F35B plan stands, but orders in the next five years will be slowed down (details to follow).
-          Funding will be added for an “Afloat-Forward Staging Base that can be dedicated to support missions in areas where ground-based access is not available, such as counter-mine operations.” No details have been released, but this new kind of vessel fits into the “Sea Basing” developments. An Afloat-Forward Staging Base, in the USMC books, traditionally indicates a vessel capable to operate and maintain helicopters (a floating heliport with extensive maintenance facilities, accommodations, space for spares etcetera). To get an idea of what the Afloat base could be in the end, take a look at the video on this page. The AFSB and the Mobile Landing Platforms (the second programme, for 3 vessels, is already ongoing) are fundamental to the Sea Basing concept.  

US Navy
-          11 Carrier battlegroups confirmed, along with 10 Carrier Air Wings. There will be however a 33 months gap time with only 10 carriers available as USS Enterprise retires before John F. Kennedy is completed and enters service. Aircraft Carriers are confirmed as a fundamental part of the US defense strategy and requirements.
-          The acquisition of 1 Virginia SSN submarine will be delayed out of FY2013 and past 2017. However, funding will be added to increase the cruise missile capacity of the SSNs of the next production batches. The change will add 2 more multiple all-up round canisters (from 2 vertical launch tubes to 4) with each containing 6 TLAMs. Each Virginia will so have at least 24 Vertical Launch TLAMs aboard, probably starting from Block 5, to be ordered in 2019.
-          The construction of replacement SSBNs (SSBN(X) will be delayed by 2 years, into the from 2019 to 2021. Design for the new boat continues unfazed, however, and the document reassures that there is no impact on the Common Missile Compartment and on the UK’s own SSBN-replacement effort.
-          Funding will be made available to invest in a submarine-launched variant of the Prompt Global Strike missile system pursued by the air force. Prepare to hear a lot more talk in the next few years about “conventionally-armed Trident”. It will be interesting to see what shapes this new system eventually takes. Earlier proposals by the George W. Bush administration to develop conventional warheads for submarine-launched Trident nuclear ballistic missiles were rebuffed by critics who questioned how other nations could tell the difference between a nuclear or conventional weapon launch, but the US now say they have the technology to make the missiles distinguishable, thanks to a different, “flatter” trajectory. More details will no doubt emerge in the next future.
-          6 out of 22 Ticonderoga Anti Air Warfare cruisers will be retired. Only one of them has been modernized for Anti-Ballistic role, but is in need of other expensive repairs and overhauls. The Ticos, as impressive and heavily armed as they are, are old and have always had their defects.
-          2 Littoral Combat Ships will be delayed and removed from FY2013 funding, along with 8 Joint High Speed Vessels (modified civilian ferries for the rapid transport of troops and material over the sea). The commitment to 55 LCS was confirmed, but the cut to JHSV might be definitive.
-          F35 plans and long-term numbers are confirmed, but with a very substantial slow-down in acquisitions over the 5 years from 2013 to 2017.
-          The Navy will receive funding to start work for basing a LCS flotilla in Singapore. Patrol crafts will be based in Bahrain. In later FYs the US Navy plans to base a second LCS flotilla away from the US mainland, in Bahrain. A third LCS flotilla will be in Japan, based in Yokosuka.
-          The NQ-4 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance drone (BAMS) continues. Based on the Global Hawk airframe and performances, this drone will have an incredible range and very long endurance. It will carry radar and EO sensors and communication relay payloads to provide more non-satellite bandwidth to the Navy. The US Navy plans for global coverage thanks to this drone, which will see squadrons based in an airport on the Gulf of Mexico, in one base on the US West coast, in Bahrain and in Sigonella, Sicily. Sigonella will also receive P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.
-          F35 plans and long term numbers confirmed, but delays in acquisition in the 5 years out to 2017.

-          The USAF will cut 6 out of its 60 Tactical Fighter Wings, plus a Training squadron. It is a cut of some 108 to 144 airplanes, but the defense documents judges the reduction “safe” as the remaining force is judged more than sufficient.
-          27 old super cargo planes C5A will be retired. This will leave in service 52 C5M (modernized)
-          65 old C130s will be retired, leaving 318 in service.
-          By 2013 the C17 production for the USAF will be complete, with the delivery of the 223th airplane. No cuts planned to this fleet, which the USAF once planned in just 180 airplanes but that was expanded again and again by political intervention that added orders each FY to keep production open. The USAF is not complaining, anyway: with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the C17 fleet, even enlarged, works hard.
-          The Joint Cargo Aircraft C27J is being cancelled. The 38 airplanes acquired so far and positively still new will be “disposed of”. Bargain price deals for excellent second-hand machines?
-          The Global Hawk Block 30 fleet is being retired from service and mothballed. The Block 30 is the recce variant that was intended to replace the ancient U2 manned plane, but according to the USAF, the Block 30 is a disaster. Its sensors are nowhere near as good as the U2’s ones. Each Global Hawk Block 30 costs a shocking 215 million dollars (there goes your “UAVs are cheap”!, a C17 with spares and support comes at 256 million and a F35 in the current, expensive low-rate production lots at around 150) and, worse, has the tendency to break down constantly. USAF sources have stated that the Block 30 is a true “hangar queen”, and that due to its inferior sensors it makes no sense to keep it flying. The worst part is that USAF sources have declared that “despite Discovery Channel hype” the UAV sensors (at least those of this ambitious drone in particular) are “billions of dollars away” from meeting their promises. The U2 will now fly at least until 2023, with plans for 42 Global Hawk Block 30 scrapped.
It is not completely a defeat for the RQ-4, however: the Global Hawk Block 40 will continue: this variant uses the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) radar, a powerful ground surveillance system designed to create photo-quality imagery of the Earth’s surface and overlay moving ground targets over those. The German “EuroHawk”, a national programme for 5 Global Hawks modified for ISR missions, is continuing, as is the NATO Air Ground Surveillance system, which will use 5 Global Hawks Block 40 to base in Sigonella. The Block 4 will cover the same kind of mission of the RAF Sentinel R1, capturing radar imagery and tracking stationary and moving ground targets.
As said in the US Navy space, the BAMS variant also continues.     
-          MQ-1 and MQ-9 (Predator and Reaper) are winners in the plan. The combined fleets will be enhanced, expanded and funded so to be able to provide 65 Close Air Patrols per day, with a surge capacity for 85. A CAP normally means 3 drones rotating daily for 24 hours coverage of a target area.
-          There are no additional details, but F35 long-term plan is confirmed, as is the requirement for a new strategic bomber and funding will be provided for the Prompt Global Strike programme.

Specific Programs

-          Nuclear deterrence. For now the “Triad” is confirmed, but reductions will be considered. In my opinion, being the submarine-launched missiles the most survivable and effective deterrence, eventual reductions will preferably hit the silo-based Minuteman missiles and/or the nukes delivered by air force bombers.
-          F35 will see a substantial slowdown in acquisition in the fiscal years 2013 to 2017. In 2013 the US will buy 29, 13 F35 less than planned. In 2014 they will buy only 29 out of a planned 62, 44 out of 81 in 2015 and 61 out of 108 in 2016. They however confirmed all three the F35 variants and maintain their commitment to a 2443 airplanes buy. Eventually, up to 179 F35s will be delayed to later years while development continues and the problems remaining are solved. So far, the cuts outlined indicate delays to 130 airplanes.
-          The Joint Air-Ground Missile is getting its funding slice massively reduced, with the forces invited to consider cheaper options. This could mean longer life for TOW, Hellfire and Maverick. Or, perhaps, US interest in the Brimstone Dual Mode, which is the closest thing available to what the JAGM was to deliver (a tri-seeker multimission missile for use from ground launchers, helicopters, drones and fast jets of Navy, Marines and USAF). The JAGM is not dead, and the idea feels just too good to let it go: it could make a big return in future budgets.
-          The Army Ground Combat Vehicle is slowed down.

The heavy emphasis on power projection and maritime strategy is absolutely evident in the choices made by the US. There is no mention of meeting the 313-ships plan, for the moment, but the general direction is absolutely naval oriented, so it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic breakaway from the plan even in case some reductions are mandated.

I think the nuclear force is and should be a main target for cuts. The US still field an incredible arsenal, and while they have to balance Russia’s own huge stock, I don’t see the need for a full Triad of nuclear capability. The most survivable and effective delivery method is by ballistic missiles fired by submarines, so I’d say that this branch is mostly safe. Possibly, the most vulnerable part of the Triad is the land-based, silo-launched Minuteman fleet. It would be the first thing I’d cut back if I had to reap savings.


  1. I was thinking the same thing about nukes.

    Minuteman offers nothing that an SSBN doesnt, whereas air nukes are something different.

    I think the conventional trident will hit the same problem it did last time, Russia will point out, if they see anything Trident like coming anywhere near them, they will, quite sensibly, respond with everything that have.
    A conventional Trident warhead might be a great way to crack open chinas submarine pens, but all Russias going to see is possible nuke heading towards Russia...

  2. Welcome and thanks for the comment, TrT.

    I'm very curious about what will come out of the submarine-launched Prompt Global Strike. Certainly there are risks and challenges, but the forces are well aware of the issues, and if technology has matured as they assert, i don't see why a solution can't be developed.
    So long as funding is made available, of course, but the new strategic path set a big deal of relevance on Prompt Global Strike... and much as it borns out of a USAF plan, like with ballistic nukes, there is no more survivable and effective launch platform than a submarine.


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