Defense in 2013
Who wins, depending on who wins.
No matter which man wins the presidency, the Pentagon is going to keep taking that proverbial hill. But there are some areas in which a Romney administration would take the U.S. military down a path much different than the Obama administration would. Here are a few of our picks for the people and programs that might find themselves sitting pretty come Wednesday morning:
Military Reformers – President Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent much of last fall crafting a $525 billion defense budget for 2013 with unprecedented buy-in from the top brass. It shrinks the size and projected growth of the U.S. military over the next five years with their blessing. Defense officials say they were forced to meet the Budget Control Act’s spending restrictions — meaning they were given an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway. It’s no secret both the White House and many four-star generals, including the top Marine, Commandant Gen. James Amos, were hoping to direct a post-war reset. Others, like Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and recently retired Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz, said for months that the military should do its part toward helping alleviate total federal spending. An Obama victory keeps their five-year budget proposal and the national security strategy it funds alive.
Drones – While both candidates support the aggressive use of drones in the war on terrorism, Obama already has a budget on the table that cuts traditional forces and weapons, like big ships and some missile defenses, in order to give more resources to smaller platforms. Specifically, Obama’s interest will likely spur the replacement of today’s slow, propeller-driven UAVs with stealthy, jet-powered drones that can survive against modern air defenses. This means the Navy may move ahead with its contest for a stealthy, carrier-launched attack drone under the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. The Air Force will probably restart its currently stalled plans to develop a new fleet of stealthy, jet-powered UAVs to complement its RQ-170 Sentinel spy drones. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all ready to compete for the contracts on both of these efforts. Oh, and don’t forget the new fleet of 80 to 100 long-range stealth bombers that the Air Force is developing. Versions of this aircraft are designed to be "optionally manned" — i.e., remote-controlled.
Defense Industry Shareholders – Bear with us. Yes, Obama wants to stop the long-term yearly growth of defense spending while Romney wants to increase the Pentagon budget massively. But in the near term, the next president has to get Congress to move on sequester or the defense budget gets whacked. Obama surrogates feel that the president has leverage to break the deadlock if he wins and argue that Romney would enter with no footing on which to stand up to his own party, cementing the deadlock and making sequester that much more likely. "The fiscal cliff is much more likely to happen under Romney because he’s not shown the backbone that I think we need," Rachel Kleinfeld of the left-leaning Truman National Security Project claimed. Maybe. But an Obama win does at least mean that negotiations can pick up wherever they left off. And watercooler wisdom suggests that a Romney win would force Congress to extend the sequestration deadline at the very least. So an Obama re-elect could mean a shorter glide path for a deal.
Blue Star Mothers – While the Obama campaign says the president will hew to the NATO-approved timeline to exit Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the White House gets to decide just how fast combat ends and how many U.S. troops will remain there in perpetuity. Judging by the comments of the candidates and their surrogates, a Romney presidency seems far likelier to extend a high troop-total in Afghanistan as long as possible. Romney also has repeatedly criticized Obama for not keeping U.S. troops in Iraq as a buffer for Iran. The same concern applies to post-war Afghanistan. By contrast, Obama’s liberal base thinks the 2014 pullout is not fast enough, by an unbelievable margin of 98-2 percent. ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen’s recommendations for the 2013-2014 troop lay-down is expected in Washington later this month, but don’t expect a decision until after January. With green-on-blue attacks showing no sign of letting up, failing Afghan governance report cards pouring in, and the election behind him, the commander-in-chief could well decide to get more troops out sooner rather than later.
TriCare – The military’s health program is a winner if you believe that fixing it is the only way to save it. Obama’s plan to address soaring military health costs — $19 billion in 2001; $50 billion in 2013 — by raising premiums on some recipients for the first time since the mid-1990s is backed by two consecutive defense secretaries, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, and the Joint Chiefs. It’s already before Congress. "They’ve got to act on it, and that’s a hard political thing to act on first term," said Kleinfeld. DOD proposed to increase fees across the healthcare system, except for active duty troops, over the next four years. The Pentagon claimed it would save $1.8 billion in personnel costs. Congress has rejected the move in bills going through both houses, but Obama has fired a warning shot by including the TriCare impasse on his list of veto-bait items that must be addressed this year.
Rosie Riveters and Shipyards – Romney has said he would boost shipbuilding from nine ships a year to about 15. Overall, John Lehman, a former Navy Secretary who is one of Romney’s principal defense advisers, says a Romney Pentagon would emphasize littoral combat ships, replace the FFG 7 frigates, and increase the number of destroyers built each year. "We would also include getting up to the accepted requirement for Marine amphibious lift, so there’d be an increase in amphibious ships," Lehman told Defense News. Romney’s ambitious plan is seen as unrealistic by some on the other side because it would increase spending $2 trillion over the next decade. But even if Congress agreed to a fraction of that, shipbuilders like General Dynamics, Huntington Ingalls, and Lockheed Martin could see a lot more business.
The F-22, I mean the F-35. Romney had said he would "add F-22s to our Air Force fleet," making everyone from industry to the Hill to the Fourth Estate running to find out just what he meant by the comment on the controversial F-22 Raptor, for which Defense Secretary Robert Gates capped production. Turns out, says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, that he meant the F-35. "F-22 is not a winner," Thompson says. "I’ve talked to people in the campaign and the candidate misspoke and what he really meant to say was the F-35." It’s unclear if Romney means increasing the buy of 2,400 or simply protecting it from ambitious budgeteers who think the U.S. could do with fewer of them. Either way, that could mean a big win for Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35. Lehman said in October that it’s hard to say what changes Romney would make to procurement of the troubled F-35 program. "A lot of it is going to depend on whether they get the costs under control, particularly the flyaway costs," Lehman said. Another winner: Boeing, which makes the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which Lehman sees as essential.
Uniform makers, Taco Bells, and Clubs – Romney plans to dramatically increase spending on the military and increase the size of the force by some 100,000 troops. Those troops will need services to sustain them on bases around the world. There are only two things standing in Romney’s way: Congress and federal revenues. Three, if you count the Pentagon, which is increasingly appalled by the fraction of its budget (60 percent) that goes to service members. If Pentagon spending goes up, there must be drastic cuts elsewhere in the budget. But if Romney gets his way, a small city’s worth of troops is certainly good for all the businesses outside the main gate.
Star Wars Fans – The Romney campaign has pointedly criticized the Obama administration’s missile defense policy. And while Romney got flak for his comment about Russia being America’s "No. 1 geopolitical foe," it’s clear he believes in good fences for Russia — and for Iran, including the possibility of a return to the Bush-era, anti-ICBM plan that Moscow opposed and that Obama scrapped in 2009. That plan would have put 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. In its stead, the Obama administration opted for a "phased approach" (also opposed by Russia) that relies heavily on Aegis ships with SM-3 interceptors, which, top Pentagon officials argue, will provide more flexibility. But in the third presidential debate, Romney said, "I think also that pulling our missile defense program out of Poland in the way we did was also unfortunate in terms of, if you will, disrupting the relationship." A greater emphasis on missile defense could be good for contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin — but possibly less good for relations with Moscow.
The PX in Bahrain – Romney has pledged a significantly increased U.S. troop presence in Central Command to check Iran. That means an additional aircraft carrier parked offshore but also likely several thousand more support troops, especially Marines, rotating through the U.S. base in Bahrain. Since the 1940s, the Navy has used the island kingdom located just across the Gulf from Iran as a key hub for watching over the region. In 2011, Centcom’s Marines stood up a forward-deployed headquarters at the base from which to conduct more counterterrorism operations. Indeed, in the past several years, the base has expanded and improved its facilities for a long-haul presence, including a lovely 30,000-foot exchange that houses a food court, gym, ice cream shop, bicycle store, movie rentals, and officers clubs. It’s a serene campus safely walled off from the still-ongoing human rights protests occurring across the city. Already, Special Forces contractors and Pentagon VIPs are making Bahrain a regular stop on regional tours, leading to the rise of high-end hotels and Irish pubs near the base. Romney’s plans ensure more of the same to come.