APPROACH 1: MAKE EFFICIENCIES WITHOUT CHANGING STRATEGY
The first possible approach to seeking further defense savings might generate additional cuts of $100 billion to $200 billion over a decade, beyond those now scheduled. Some of those savings might be counterbalanced by higher-than-expected costs in other parts of the Pentagon budget, so the net savings in the overall defense budget could be less than some hope -- an important reality to bear in mind in all discussions of future defense reforms. We may need to cut more forces and weapons just to achieve the topline budget targets already assumed by existing law and policy. And such cuts would themselves be hard. For example:
- The size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps could be reduced modestly below their 1990s levels (to say 450,000 soldiers and 160,000 Marines); current plans are to keep them slightly above those levels (at 490,000 and 182,000 respectively)
- Rather than increase its fleet, the Navy could employ innovative approaches like "sea swap," by which some crews are rotated via airplane while ships stay forward deployed longer, to get by with its current 286 ships or even a dozen or two less
- The F-35 joint strike fighter, a good plane but an expensive one, would be scaled back by roughly half from its current intended buy of 2,500 airframes
- Rather than design a new submarine to carry ballistic missiles, the Navy might simply refurbish the existing Trident submarine or reopen that production line
- Military compensation would be streamlined further as well, despite Congress's recent reluctance to go along with even the modest changes proposed in 2012 by the administration. Stateside commissaries and exchanges might be closed, and military health care premiums increased somewhat more than first proposed. Military pensions might be reformed too, with somewhat lower payments for working-age military retirees having 20 years or more of service, and introduction of a 401k-like plan for those who never reach 20 years (and currently receive nothing). This could be done in a way that would achieve modest net savings.
Another idea in this vein could save substantial sums too, though it would require help from allies and would have to be phased in with time. At present we rely almost exclusively on aircraft carriers, each with about 72 aircraft onboard, to have short-range combat jets in position for possible conflict -- with Iran in particular. Over the past decade, land-based jets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq have largely come home. While we occasionally rotate fighter jets through the small states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and while we maintain command and control and support assets in states like Qatar and the UAE, our permanent onshore combat power is very limited. By seeking two or more places to station Air Force combat jets continuously in Gulf states, we could facilitate a reduction of 1 or 2 carrier battle groups. (In theory, we could cut the aircraft carrier fleet even more this way, since the Navy currently needs about 5 carriers in the fleet to sustain one always on station in the Gulf, but the unpredictability of such foreign basing would counsel a more hedged approach.) Cutting two carrier battle groups could eventually save up to $15 billion a year.