Commentary | The ‘S’ Word: The Beginning, Not the End

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And so sequestration has come. 

Sequestration is a reduction in funding without a reduction in programs, manpower, operational systems or infrastructure. In a game of chicken, U.S. leaders have slashed the accounts of high-profile and much-desired programs — eliminating some critical military training (the new lexicon “tiered training” means we are not training everyone, and its effects on readiness is a wound that will not become visible until the next crisis), cutting flight and maintenance hours, cutting civilian employees’ work days, and refusing to send carrier groups overseas.

Anyone who thought that there would be a backlash against these actions is disappointed. To the contrary, the nation has spoken in opinion polls saying that the sky did not fall as predicted, so maybe there is more that can be done without permanent damage. 

The truth is, some fully embraced sequestration, and others have run about like the proverbial Chicken Little exclaiming that it will ruin the nation. Its actual magnitude is nowhere near enough to help solve the immense economic issues the United States faces. Over the next 10 years, we would have spent $47 trillion without sequestration, and a little less than $46 trillion with it. Even if we totally eliminated the more than $500 billion for the Department of Defense (DoD), we still would be going into debt to the tune of more than $500 billion per year. So sequestration, though it might be painful, is just a first step. And how intelligently we handle this minor first step might presage how intelligently we will make the remaining reductions in spending that are necessary.

While I believe the biggest threat that we have to our position as a world leader is our economy, I will not attempt to address the solutions to our significant fiscal issues, but will focus only on the impact of these financial challenges to the DoD in general, and the space mission in particular. Step 1 was the $487 billion, or about $49 billion per year, voluntary reduction taken by the DoD. Step 2 was sequestration, approximately an 8 percent across-the-board reduction. But despite all the hoopla, it turns out that these are merely an extremely modest step in solving the U.S. fiscal mess. The combination of these budget cuts have us looking at a $470 billion military vs. a $570 billion military. Certainly the cuts being taken are scary to many, but the truth is, if the services have a predictable top line and the ability to look across their entire budget in a bottom-up fashion, they can strategically divest based on reduced requirements and give the American people a smaller but still capable force. However, to date, that has not occurred.

Seemingly ignoring sequestration cuts, the president’s 2014 budget proposal includes around $520 billion for the DoD. We all suspect that this will not make it through Congress, and we will end up closer to $470 billion — or even lower in the out years.

We should be able to field a solid military for $450 billion to $500 billion a year, but to do this we need to let the military leaders figure out where and how to make cuts in a strategic fashion. Right now we have tied their hands behind their back. We are carrying infrastructure we do not need. We are building and sustaining weapon systems the military chiefs have tried to divest. Air Force Space Command is trying to move toward disaggregated, resilient/affordable systems, and wants to do this sooner rather than later, but this requires some moderate near-term investments to be able to get to the 10-year savings necessitated by sequestration. 

Certainly the military is not without ideas, but we need to get the DoD more engaged, and with more freedom to architect the military that we can afford for the future. If we are able to make our military leaders part of the solution to the pending fiscal storm, we need to free them of external competing interests. 

For nearly 40 years, the defense budget has consumed a progressively smaller share of federal spending. It is now at its smallest share in 50 years, and it will drop below 12.5 percent by 2017. It is true that the nature of war has changed dramatically over the last 70 years. We have gone from a military of about 15 million personnel during World War II to a military of about 1.4 million today. However, while the manpower costs have shrunk, the costs to provide them the best tools and equipment possible have increased in complexity and cost.

What does all this mean for the DoD space community? Though reductions in force structure and capital accounts are never desired, there is room for immense change, and change presents potential opportunities. While there is no doubt the resulting military could still be dominant, this means the Air Force and Space Command will have to be judicious with the scarcer funds. Past budget reductions usually have meant stretching programs (which just pushes a bigger problem to the out years) and cutting systems engineering, systems program office (SPO) support and investments for the future. This time around we must be careful not to lay fallow the critical investments for our future lower-cost systems, especially the space modernization and hosted payload initiatives, systems engineering and SPO support. Reducing cost and moving to a lower-cost future mean we have to protect these investments today. 

As argued for decades, the challenging environment demands improvements in space acquisition processes. The total cost of space systems must be reduced. Buying the same types of systems in the same old way, where the community buys more and more expensive and complex systems, is simply not realistic in this budget environment. To continue to provide unparalleled space capabilities, and achieve affordability and resilience, Air Force Space Command has advocated deploying and operating mixed constellations — that is, augmenting the current complex, highly integrated satellites with lower-cost disaggregated satellite architectures with shorter mission lives, where cost and schedule are primary programmatic drivers. This would reduce total mission costs. Additionally, disaggregation can reduce the technical complexity of entire space segments and shorten program development cycles. The greater volume of acquired systems also could enable industry to improve production rates and mission survivability. While the space community will always need some large complex space systems, supplementing them with disaggregated systems can address both affordability and resilience. 

We also need to better leverage the commercial space industry. Commercial satellite buses, and commercial rideshares, offer significant opportunities to support the concept of disaggregation, reducing cost and increasing mission responsiveness. Commercial space has shown itself to be highly reliable and is able to build products at moderate costs, employing plug-and-play buses and predictable pipelines. Employing such commercially hosted architectures will demand more responsive government decision-making and shorter and more flexible decision timelines. Institutionalizing such an approach, so that government and industry can provide agile solutions to problems, will produce the best value and capability for the taxpayers and users of space capabilities.

We do indeed have a budget crisis. This is not going to go away soon. We have to be prepared for even more cuts to defense spending, and we must think through this long before they come. Change is hard, but the U.S. national security space community is moving to anticipate the future. It has developed plans to build disaggregated, lower-cost systems across all mission areas. We need to allow the community to get on with these programs, and sooner rather than later. We also need to empower the U.S. space leadership to figure out the best way to absorb the cuts imposed by the present sequestration machinations and any that might come in the future, and do this in a fashion that protects the ultimately lower-cost and more-resilient architectures of the future. This may require painful decisions on buying smaller quantities of the expensive legacy systems. 

The Quadrennial Defense Review is coming this year — a golden opportunity for the services to sit down as one team to assess what kind of military we can have for $400 billion, $450 billion and $500 billion, and what we could do intelligently to meet national priorities at these levels. Surviving sequestration is not the real challenge; providing the greatest military in the world at an affordable price in the future is the path we must plan for.

 

Thomas D. Taverney is senior vice president at SAIC and a former vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. He submitted this article as an individual.