What to Look For in the DoD Budget


Next week, the Department of Defense (DoD) will release its annual budget, which is where wonky strategy-speak gets translated into real hard dollars. Even though DoD just completed a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) last year, in theory laying out strategy and resources for the next four years, a lot has changed since then. The Islamic State swept into Iraq, Russia invaded the Ukraine and annexed Crimea, and DoD announced the search for a new “offset strategy.” Here’s what to look for when the budget drops to see whether DoD is adjusting resources to match its changing strategic needs:

#1 Counterterrorism Drones

Last year’s QDR announced a 15% cut in DoD’s drone fleet from 65 twenty-four hour Predator & Reaper combat patrols down to 55. That was before Islamic extremists seized a chunk of territory the size of Great Britain in the heart of the Middle East. In response, the United States started launching more 24/7 drone patrols overhead, bringing the number of actual drone patrols flown back up to … you guessed it, 65. But the Air Force is still only funded and resourced for 55. The predictable result is that today’s drone fleet is stretched beyond capacity, and drone pilots are so overworked that they are leaving the service faster than the Air Force can train new ones.

The QDR decision to cut drones was predicated on the false assumption that as the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, the number of drones required would decrease. The problem is that the amount of drones needed isn’t necessarily tied to how many troops are on the ground. It’s partly a function of ground troops, but it’s also driven how many targets the United States needs to surveil or take out. In some ways, tracking terrorists is harder with fewer boots on the ground to gather valuable human intelligence.

Unless the White House is asleep at the switch, expect last year’s QDR decision to cut the drone fleet to be at least partially reversed so that DoD can properly execute the President’s number one national security priority. Another action DoD could take would be to re-task some of the Army’s drones for global counterterrorism missions. Typically, Army drones provide direct support to ground troops, but with the U.S. combat mission ended in Afghanistan, the Army should have extra capacity to leverage its drones for counterterrorism. The Army has the ability to field approximately thirty additional 24/7 drone patrols, and having them all stateside while the Middle East goes up in flames makes little sense. A shift to reverse the cuts to Air Force drones and re-allocate some Army drones to counterterrorism would be a healthy step towards actually resourcing the President’s strategy.

#2 Stealthy Drones

Even while dealing with threats today, DoD must prepare for the future. This summer when DoD launched a new “offset strategy,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel highlighted robotics and autonomous systems as playing a key role in that venture. Drones have huge, untapped advantages in warfare due to their ability to stay aloft beyond the limits of human endurance and undertake dangerous missions without risking a human life. Unlike today’s drones, however, future platforms will need to incorporate stealth and other survivability measures to operate in contested airspace.

DoD’s signature next-generation drone is the Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft, and it’s in trouble. It’s been pilloried by an array of outside experts, sparking a veritable library of commentary on the Navy’s program. The furor reached such a level last year that the House Armed Services Committee put language into the National Defense Authorization Act that withheld funds for UCLASS until DoD conducted a formal review of requirements and submitted that review to Congress explaining its rationale for the program (see Section 217).

Doing the review shouldn’t be hard, but the answers might be. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work literally wrote the book on stealthy naval drones back in 2008 before he was in government. Unfortunately for the Navy, the type of aircraft Work advocated for – a stealthy, penetrating combat aircraft – is at odds with the path the Navy has chosen – a modestly stealthy maritime surveillance aircraft.

If the new offset strategy means anything at all, UCLASS will be redirected. As I wrote back in October, the most sensible approach would be to kill UCLASS and start over, sending Pentagon planners back to the drawing board to reassess what is truly needed. DoD has a recent model for this approach working well. In 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled the misguided Next-Generation Bomber and sent teams back to re-scope requirements. The result two years later was the new Long Range Strike Bomber, this time with more affordable and sensible requirements. Indications of a similar re-direction for UCLASS – a cancel and start over – would be a sign that Work is firmly in control of the Pentagon and intends to implement the new offset strategy, regardless of bureaucratic resistance.

#3 New Bomber

Later this spring, DoD is expected to announce the decision for which company will build the Air Force’s new Long Range Strike Bomber. The new bomber is a weight-bearing pillar of the new offset strategy. Without it, DoD would lose a major platform for projecting power into so-called “anti-access” areas. Keeping this program on track will be one of DoD leadership’s top priorities. Any delays to the bomber would signal trouble not only for DoD’s new offset strategy, but the very future of American power projection, so watch keenly to see whether the bomber program shows any sign of slippage.

#4 Communications

The U.S. military likes to talk about fighting as a “network,” but that only works if everyone is on the same network … and if it stays working when the shooting starts. DoD’s communications networks face a plague of troubles, some from a lack of foresight, and some because building a communications network that will stay up and running when your enemy is trying to shoot it down is just plain hard.

The first problem is that U.S. fighter aircraft face a series of challenges in talking to one another. Fifth generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, can’t talk to one another and have trouble talking to fourth generation fighters. Given that the concepts for using fifth-generation aircraft hinge upon them supporting one another, this communications gap is, needless to say, a problem. Outgoing Air Combat Commander General Mike Hostage stated last fall that he was “appalled” at these communications flaws and that fixing them was a top Air Force priority, so whether that makes it into the budget is something to watch for.

Even aside from aircraft interoperability issues, DoD writ large is over-invested in vulnerable space communications, which are susceptible to jamming, attacks, and space debris. One solution is a backup redundant aerial network composed of long-endurance communications relay drones to function as pseudo-satellites, or “pseudo-lites.” This would provide some measure of resiliency in the event of a degradation of space assets. Merely having that functionality alone could help deter an attack on American satellites, since an adversary would gain less from doing so.

DoD’s plan for building such a network, the Joint Aerial Layer Network (JALN), has been consistently under-funded, however. Besides the fact that investing in communications often takes a backseat to more exciting programs, like fifth generation fighters than can’t talk to one another, JALN is also hampered by the fact that it’s a joint mission. Unlike making Air Force fighters that can communicate, which is clearly the Air Force’s responsibility, JALN’s purpose is to connect all of the Services, which means everyone sees it as someone else’s job to fund. In principle, that’s where the Office of the Secretary of Defense would step in to enforce joint action, but JALN falls through the bureaucratic gaps there too. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has two different offices dedicated towards space, one focused on space acquisitions and one on space policy, but arguably no one whose job is to resource a key mission in the event that space assets are degraded. It’s a classic case of defining the problem wrong – focusing on a domain (space) vice a mission (resilient global communications). Bureaucracies being what they are, however, key components of JALN (which is not a single program but a suite of programs) have consistently remained bureaucratic orphans. Building an entire network of pseudo-lites would be costly, but slapping communications repeaters on the Air Force’s long-endurance Global Hawks would be a sensible start while DoD continues to work on even longer-endurance aircraft. When the budget is released, look to see whether DoD has managed to overcome bureaucratic hurdles to fund a critical mission area – resilient global communications – for operating against future threats.

#5 Research & Development spending

All of these initiatives cost money and it has to come from somewhere. As the belt has been tightening for the past several years, DoD leaders have gone out of their way to say they will protect their “seed corn” for the future: research and development investments to sustain America’s technological advantages. That doesn’t mean R&D spending hasn’t taken any hits. In fact, despite the QDR’s claim that DoD will “sustain priority investments in science, technology, research, and development,” R&D spending actually took a modest 4% cut in last year’s budget. It does mean, however, that if DoD leaders are serious about sustaining America’s technological advantage, they will work to protect R&D spending as much as possible. A major cut to R&D would suggest that Pentagon leaders have lost focus and that bureaucratic squabbling has taken precedence over strategy. If R&D spending is sustained in spite of continued fiscal pressure, that’s a sign that DoD leaders have a strong hand on the tiller and are keeping their eyes set on their strategy.


Paul Scharre is a fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. He is a former Army Ranger with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.