War is Changing. So Should the Pentagon’s Budget

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The Biden administration’s first defense budget request, for fiscal year 2022 and plans for beyond, should reflect critical political and economic realities in Washington and the country. It is strategically unwise and infeasible to increase the top line, which will remain around $740 billion. Instead, Pentagon planners would be wise to reallocate the dollars they have to host of new military and technological realities.

As our leadership conducts their strategic review of the spending imperatives to protect the American way of life, they will do well to note additions to the character of war. Warfare is no longer solely about aircraft carriers, missiles, or riflemen. That is, war reflects the context of the societies in conflict. Data, digital platforms, networks, and disinformation are intrinsic parts of our society and our competitors. Now, they are targets and tools of warfare. China and Russia’s investment in and use of artificial intelligence, electronic and information warfare, and cyberattacks against the United States and India — states armed with nuclear weapons — is blatant manifestation that the use of violence for political objectives is as much about software as hardware.    

In the past, Congress and the military, when faced with a constrained budget, have prioritized protecting existing “legacy” weapons platforms. This has been rational behavior. Such weapons systems have proven themselves in previous combat operations, and established “programs of record” have concrete relationships to political constituencies. But Pentagon’s planners today need to invest in the modern tools of digital warfare. Biden’s first defense budget request should offer no room for both. If there is a place to trim, it is in hardware, especially older systems that can and should be cut.

As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown and the Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger recently wrote, “Our current readiness model strongly biases spending on legacy capabilities for yesterday’s missions, at the expense of building readiness in the arena of great-power competition and investing in modern capabilities for the missions of both today and tomorrow.”

The instruments societies use to bludgeon one another have evolved. To ignore what is at hand would be catastrophic. Eliot Cohen and John Gooch long ago observed that military failure is inexorably tied to failures to learn, anticipate, and adapt. One hundred years ago, militaries evolved with aviation, the combustion engine, and radio communications. Today, the president’s budget request should expand spending in software, data, networks, electronic warfare, and cyber.

The common component of modern weapons, platforms, sensors, and command-and-control systems is they run on software. They require networks to connect them, digital information to stream among them, and data-driven supply chains and maintenance to keep them operational. Operational forces are dependent upon access to, defense of, and resilience in the cyber domain and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Additionally, our forces rely on cyber interoperability with our allies, particularly in intelligence. We have gained enormous advantages from the cooperation of the Five Eyes countries in signals intelligence, and we should be leveraging that with greater investment in those digital capabilities, as well.    

The current spending gaps between old hardware and new digital warfare capabilities is staggering. The most recent defense appropriations bill, for fiscal 2021, included $38 billion for aircraft, ship, and vehicle depot maintenance; $17 billion for 141 million barrels of petroleum fuel; and $13 billion for 96 Joint Strike Fighters. Whereas less than $10 billion was allocated to investments in the cyber domain, $841 million for artificial intelligence, $789 million for cloud computing, and $449 million for 5G networks.

Where should the Biden administration look for trade-offs in existing budget lines? Consider options in the three big “color of money” buckets of procurement, operations and maintenance, and manpower. Defense budgeteers should realign procurement dollars to reduce select aircraft, ship, and vehicle buys and instead invest in advanced data analytics and machine learning to modernize our maintenance and supply chain management. This would actually address the readiness versus modernization dilemma.

Another trade-off worth considering is to reduce funding for training and maintenance in traditional infantry, armor, artillery, and motor transport and instead put those funds toward investment in digital training solutions, particularly for cyber, electronic warfare, and network defense and resilience.

Finally, budget planners should shift more manpower spending to fund enterprise digital platforms and applications that automate management, analysis, and auditing of the department’s administrative and financial information, thereby harnessing modern technology to drive effective, data-driven personnel and fiscal decisions.

Software is as important as any hardware. The Russian SolarWinds hack of 2020 is an example of the fact that we have not yet come to terms with the very real vulnerabilities of our computer systems. Chinese military doctrine calls for attacking U.S. command and intelligence systems, satellites, navigation systems, and even the American electrical power grid — such as was done this year in Mumbai. The universal opposition of the Defense Department to the license application of Ligado to build a 5G mobile communications network because it would “cause unacceptable operational impacts to the warfighter and adversely affect the military potential of GPS by negatively impacting GPS receivers” shows how crowded the electromagnetic spectrum is, how vulnerable it is to interference, and that investments must be constantly made to maintain the ability to use the spectrum.

Leaders in the Pentagon and Congress should identify and answer our true operational weaknesses. The United States is a global leader in software, data, and digital tools. It’s time the commander in chief and lawmakers ensure we harness them for national security.        

Scott Cooper is a retired Marine Corps officer with seven combat deployments to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He co-authored the book “No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy.”

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