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Pentagon Plans Major Weapons Trade-Offs

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 by Pamela Hess
 UPI Pentagon correspondent
 Washington (UPI) - Mar 05, 2004
The Pentagon is changing the way it does business, again. But this time they mean it. Senior defense officials Friday unveiled a new process for determining military strategy and investment priorities, a complicated and bureaucratic process that -- if carried out to the full extent -- could bust so-called sacred cows all over the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved the long-talked about value of "joint war fighting" -- forces from different services fighting in concert, sometimes attacking the same targets at the same time.

While the idea has long been lauded, it has only recently been made possible by advanced communications and command systems that keep friendly forces out of each other's way, a new crop of weapons used across the services, and some ambitious experimentation with new tactics.

"Jointness" has also been forced upon them by the size of the military, which is roughly half as big as it was in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Under the new process, each weapon system will be judged not just on its own merits but on the value it provides relative to everything else in the military's inventory, and the cost it exacts to do so. The question will no longer be whether the $250 million F/A-22 Raptor is better than its predecessor, the F-15E.

It is whether the F/A-22's ability to evade enemy air defense radar and bomb targets inside denied territory is that much more valuable than all the other weapon systems that do similar things. It could be compared to a submarine that carries cruise missiles, or an aircraft carrier with a deck full of lower-cost fighters, or even a B-2 bomber.

The challenge for the Pentagon is to try to find a way to make reasonable comparisons of disparate weapons systems.

"It's been pretty easy to compare aircraft to aircraft, but the ability to compare a submarine to an aircraft, and to understand the values and where you want to take risk and investment" is more difficult, a senior defense official said at a briefing to reporters Friday.

The Army notably carried out a mini-version of this process regarding its now-canceled Comanche helicopter program. After several months of review, the Army determined it would rather cancel the Comanche and apply the funds toward improving its overall aviation program and buying more old helicopters, rather than gain the incremental improvement over the Kiowa scout helicopter.

This notion of service-wide tradeoffs was hatched in the "tank," the secure meeting room used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Just after the Iraq war, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark began to try to figure out how they could "reset" their forces-- that is, bring their equipment home and give their troops rest and training -- while at the same time be ready to meet the needs of Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What they realized is something fairly revolutionary in the annals of U.S. military thinking, where competition rather than cooperation between the services has been the order of the day.

They realized in some ways they were interchangeable -- that one could cover for the other, and thereby earn their people and equipment a rest, a senior defense official explained Friday.

The Pentagon's leadership has embraced this approach, and will now seek tradeoffs between weapons systems, services, personnel and equipment when it builds its 2006 budget.

That budgeting process will start, in another new development, with the war-fighting commanders-in-chief like Abizaid or Strategic Command chief Adm. James Ellis. In years past, the services have generally originated the budget, outlining a list of weapons systems and spending priorities based on guidance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Now, that guidance will be based on the capabilities the war-fighting commanders say they need. Those abilities -- to strike anywhere in the world within 96 hours, for instance, or to rebuild a national irrigation system in a post-war environment -- are to be collected before the budget process begins and the services directed to come up with multiple options for meeting those needs.

The Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense will then trade-off between the potential options, ostensibly disregarding the traditional firewalls that have existed on funding between the services.

"There will certainly be tension in the system over that," a senior military official acknowledged.

Despite repeated attempts at reform, the services have long held relatively static percentages of the defense budget.

Congress plays an important role in maintaining that equilibrium. Each of the service's weapon systems has a number of Capitol Hill protectors whose states and districts benefit from the billions of dollars in defense contracts. The larger the contract, usually the tougher it is for the Pentagon to toy with.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly run afoul of Congress for making drastic changes in weapons programs -- cutting the number of B-1 bombers in 2001, or canceling the Crusader cannon program.

A senior defense official smiled noncommittally at the suggestion that Congress may prove the most difficult to convince about the new budget process.

Another senior defense official was confident this attempt to change the $400 billion budget -- to buy weapons that are responsive to war-fighting commanders' needs and potential threats rather than powerful interests and inter-service politics -- will succeed.

"The world is different, the 'joint' is real," the official said. "Afghanistan and Iraq validated it."

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