$575-Billion War Budget—And Lots of Surprises
Pentagon spending request includes new drones, bombers and vehicles
The Pentagon’s $575-billion proposed budget for 2015 is nearly $120 billion less than what the military spent in 2010. The decline reflect the ends of the Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan wars plus the effects of automatic “sequestration” budget cuts.
But even with reductions, it’s still by far the biggest military budget in the world. $575 billion funds 1.3 million active-duty troops and the production of hundreds of drones and warplanes, seven major warships and many thousands of missiles and bombs … as well as a full year of combat operations in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East.
And buried in the fat stacks of budget documentation are plenty of surprises and half-secrets—proof that even a leaner Pentagon is still a huge, sprawling place with lots of dark corners piled high with new and sometimes hush-hush technologies.
The drone-that-shall-not-be named
In 2012, the Air Force proposed to retire its 21 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 spy drones, even though the airliner-size Northrop Grumman-built robots were practically brand new. The flying branch insisted that the 60-year-old Lockheed Martin U-2 manned spy plane was cheaper to operate, but Congress blocked any attempt to dispose of the Global Hawks.
The 2015 budget flips the plan. Now the 33 U-2s will go away and the Global Hawks will stay. “The operating costs on the Global Hawk Block 30 have come down,” Defense Undersecretary Robert Hale explained. “It was always a close call. Now it comes down in favor of the Global Hawk.”
If Congress approves, the Air Force will gradually mothball the U-2s and reassign their pilots and maintainers until America’s high-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance fleet is entirely robotic—and hopefully cheaper. By one rough measure, the U-2s cost $32,000 per flight hour and the Global Hawks just $24,000.
But cost isn’t really the only consideration. The Pentagon comptroller’s office also attributed the switch back to Global Hawks as part of the military’s “anti-access area-denial” strategy—in other words, its plan to penetrate heavy enemy air defenses in places such as China or Iran.
“In refocusing to an A2/AD environment, the Air Force plans … significant upgrades in its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems by replacing the U-2 with a composite of next-generation Global Hawks and other ISR systems,” the comptroller stated.
But the Global Hawk is not stealthy—and in fact is as vulnerable to enemy defenses as the U-2 is. Hence the emphasis on “other ISR systems.” According to a December investigation by Aviation Week, the Air Force is in the final stages of testing a radar-evading spy drone also built by Northrop Grumman—and which could use the same infrastructure as the Global Hawks.
The new RQ-180, not the older Global Hawk, is the spy drone that will penetrate enemy defenses—and help render the U-2 obsolete. It’s unclear where the RQ-180 is hiding in the 2015 spending request, although it’s probably somewhere inside the Air Force’s $11-billion classified research budget.
Big bucks for bombers
There were rumors the Air Force might want to retire some of its 20 B-2, 66 B-1 and 78 B-52 heavy bombers. But not only does the 2015 budget proposal keep all 164 of the giant warplanes, it pumps $1.6 billion into upgrading them and developing a fourth bomber type to eventually supplement the older planes.
The big investment in long-range air power should come as no surprise. To counter a rising China, the Pentagon needs warplanes able to fly across the vast Pacific and deliver heavy firepower against stiff defenses.
To that end, the 20-year-old Northrop B-2s are getting new radar detectors that help the bat-wing bomber avoid enemy sensors. The Boeing B-1s, built in the ’80s, are getting radio>and giving the 1960s-vintage bombers extra capacity for carrying “smart” guided munitions.
But the new Long-Range Strike Bomber accounts for the most spending in 2015—$900 million of $1.6-billion in upgrade funding. The Air Force wants up to 100 LRS-Bs to fight alongside the B-2s in the most intensive air wars. The catch is that the new bomber has to be as stealthy as the specialized B-2 and cheaper—just $550 million per plane, a quarter the price of a B-2.
Boeing and Lockheed have teamed up to propose a LRS-B design and Northrop will be offering its own new model. The Air Force reportedly intends to begin the formal competition this fall. It certainly will have the money to do so, provided Congress approves the budget request.
And the bombers could soon have new, long-range missiles optimized for sinking Chinese warships from up to 500 miles away. “We will procure … a long-range anti-ship cruise missile that will improve the joint ability of U.S. aircraft to engage surface combatants in defended airspace,” the comptroller announced.
Lockheed is working on a ship-killing version of its Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, which gets a whopping $350 million in the 2015 budget.
With the Iraq war over and the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan winding down, the active-duty Army is set to shrink from today’s 510,000 soldiers to 490,000 next year—and as low as 450,000 by 2019. “This is a time for reality,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
But the reality is the ground combat branch is getting tougher even as it becomes smaller. The 2015 budget proposal buys the Army more and better armored vehicles able to fight and survive in high-intensity conflicts—think World War III rather than today’s low-intensity occupations.
Ironically, the Army’s rejuvenated heavy armor force is funded in part by the cancellation of one of its highest-profile programs. The 2015 budget ends the Ground Combat Vehicle initiative, which was supposed to produce a large, thickly-armored and heavily-armed new battlewagon but grew too expensive—an estimated $10 million per vehicle.
“It is no longer affordable under the budget constraints,” Army deputy budget director David Welch said of the GCV. Instead, the ground branch will buy 18 new Paladin mobile howitzers, 15 Hercules armored recovery vehicles for towing duties, seven tank-like Assault Breachers for destroying enemy fortifications and, most surprisingly, eight new armored bridgelayers—a class of vehicle the Army hasn’t purchased in decades.
The Army’s $1.5-billion armored vehicle budget also funds better blast-resistant hulls for Stryker wheeled fighting vehicles as well as improved electronics for Abrams tanks and Bradley tracked fighting vehicles. And with $90 million, it jump-starts a new effort to buy a basic armored vehicle to replace thousands of 1970s-vintage tracked M-113s, which haul soldiers, mortars and medics around the battlefield.
More than the GCV, the Army needs this new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. With modest upgrades, the AMPV could even do the jobs the GCV was supposed to do before it got too pricey.