Future warfare gets funding nod, but little prioritization

Based on its buzz-worthy lead-in, the Quadrennial Defense Review was supposed to usher in a new way of thinking for the Defense Department and its $708 billion budget request for fiscal 2011. It was supposed to be a beacon of new military strategy and the dawn of the modernized U.S. military.

And in some ways, it is. New strategies for multiconflict capabilities marked a new DOD outlook, and generous funding for unmanned aerial vehicles took center stage for defense technology spending, with at least $2.2 billion earmarked for bolstering unmanned aircraft fleets. Defense Secretary Robert Gates hailed the importance of better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, for which UAVs are the most visible first step.

However, there are numerous critics. Some say that despite all the high-level touting of forces of the future, the QDR and the fiscal 2011 budget still focus disproportionately on current conflicts and not enough on the future. Others complain that with so many objectives to be a do-it-all military, there is no clear prioritization. Almost all critical discourse points to the high costs of trying to take on so many complex missions at once.

Now the truly difficult part begins: implementing the complicated, often competing strategies faced by a department that is straddling the fence between traditional combat and asymmetrical warfare.

“We must be ready for challenges big and small, near and far…for the wars we may need to fight in the future, even as we win the fights we’re in right now,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “As we’ve seen firsthand through eight years of war, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets are absolutely critical enablers for the warfighter.”

The budget outlines those goals with its focus on UAVs and force modernization. The use of UAVs for ISR has increased exponentially in recent years. “The most important idea [in the QDR] is that ISR will be the advantage over the enemy,” said Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, former deputy commander of the European Command.

But in the future, persistent ISR will require more than just UAVs. “Unmanned water, land and helicopter vehicles will be hugely important down the road,” Wald said.

Additionally, technological breakthroughs are necessary to fully harness the power of ISR. Wald pointed to two areas where this is key: computer capacity and the development of algorithms that define how to process data from UAVs.

Modernization efforts also emerged as a central tenet in the QDR and defense budget. The Army outlined a number of provisions for modernizing its force, including $3 billion for restructuring its Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Modernization for a more versatile Army. Most of that is coming from the Army's declining budget for research, development, testing and evaluations.

The Army’s BCT Modernization plan, released Feb. 19, calls for fielding spinout technologies, such as sensors and robotics from the former Future Combat Systems program.

But even with the record budget request for fiscal 2011, DOD will ultimately need to choose which various missions to fund, Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Center for American Progress, told Defense News.

Korb said neither the QDR nor the budget request specifies priorities, “and there is nothing here that forces the services to make hard decisions,” Korb said. “This kind of strategy is fine so long as it’s clear what you’re going to buy when you have a choice to make. But there’s no mention of how [Pentagon officials] will go about that.”

But DOD officials beg to differ. They say the QDR provides some answers to the question of prioritization and a guiding principle for weighing options and acting accordingly. “Ensuring flexibility of the whole force does not require each part of the force to do everything equally well,” the quadrennial review authors wrote. “Not all challenges pose the same degree of threat to national interests, rely on U.S. military capabilities equally or have the same chance of occurrence.”

In other words, DOD must perform a balancing act that depends in no small part on military planners’ ability to see into the future.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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