The Complex

Pentagon Chooses Machinery Over Manpower in Budget Battle

The Army is cutting thousands of soldiers from its force while fielding new vehicles to replace the Humvee and upgrading tanks and helicopters. The Air Force is shedding thousands more airmen as it buys new, stealthy F-35 fighter jets and plans for its next-generation long-range bomber. And the Marine Corps is shrinking by thousands of personnel as it prepares to buy not only more F-35s, but a next-generation heavy lift helicopter and an amphibious vehicle that will swim from Navy ships to shore carrying combat troops.

It's the new normal for the U.S. military, in which machinery trumps manpower when preparing budgets. With belt-tightening across Washington, the Pentagon wants to cut manpower and benefits for personnel along with select acquisition programs in order to retain as much as they can in new weapons, planes, and vehicles, senior defense officials said Tuesday. The comments came as they unveiled the Defense Department's new, controversial $495.6 billion base budget for fiscal 2015.

Under the plan, Pentagon spending will essentially remain flat in fiscal 2015 -- meaning that defense officials had to choose either cutting the force, or dumping new, expensive equipment that gives the United States a technological advantage on the battlefield. The Defense Department also will ask Congress for an undetermined amount of additional money in a separate "overseas contingency operations" account, but it will depend mightily on whether U.S. officials decide to leave a residual force in Afghanistan to train and advise Afghan forces as coalition forces end their combat role there.

The base budget request is about $420 million less than last year's, and comes as the United States grapples with how to handle Russia, which has emerged more clearly as a rival in the last week after its forces took control of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine, raising concerns with U.S. allies across Europe. But defense officials said Monday that its new strategy still provides the flexibility to address conflicts as they arise.

"It's continuing the transitions from the wars of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, to looking at future threats and looking at what our joint force needs to... be able to do in the next 10 to 20 years," Pentagon comptroller Bob Hale told reporters.

But the strategy has its foes. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, decried the effort on Tuesday, saying President Barack Obama's decision to cut the defense budget at a time when Russia and China are expanding their militaries is problematic, even if Congress called for mandatory budget cuts to drive down the national debt.

"In an effort to control debt, the only spending the president has truly agreed to cut has been those funds dedicated to national security: $1.2 trillion in defense cuts during his time in office," McKeon said. "While we cut nearly one-fifth of our defense resources, Russia and China are arming at an alarming rate -- Russia's military spending is up roughly 30 percent and China's has more than doubled in recent years."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released broad details about the 2015 defense budget last week, announcing that the Pentagon will cut the U-2 spy plane, A-10 attack jet, and slow the growth of its drone programs as it grappled with resetting the military after more than a decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The secretary will testify on the budget on Capitol Hill beginning Wednesday, taking tough questions about the military's future as critics say the U.S.'s choice not to push Russian forces out of Crimea underscores the stretched nature of the U.S. military amid budget cuts across the U.S. government.

The Pentagon's strategy shows a clear preference toward buying new weapons, aircraft, and vehicles rather than refurbishing old ones. The Air Force, for example, will protect three future aircraft programs above all: its planned long-range strike bomber, the KC-46A tanker plane, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. They will serve as the future centerpieces of the Air Force's fleet, eventually replacing existing aircraft like the B-52 bomber and the F-16 fighter jet. At the same time, the service will reduce forces in its active-duty, reserve, and guard forces from about 503,000 to 483,000.

The Army, meanwhile, will cut its forces from about 490,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000 over the next five years, while protecting several next-generation acquisition programs. Examples include the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a Humvee replacement that will be fielded for the first time in coming months, and upgrades for the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters. The Army also has decided to kill its controversial Ground Combat Vehicle program and its Kiowa helicopter program, but anticipates developing a new vehicle program in the future.

Hagel said in a document released with the budget on Tuesday that the future U.S. military will be smaller, but ready and able to project power over great distances. Known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, it outlines future U.S. defense strategy, but was written before Russia's aggressive actions last week. It states that while the U.S. will continue to shift forces to the Pacific, Europe is still a priority.

"Europe is home to our most stalwart and capable allies and partners, and the strategic access and support these countries provide is essential to ensuring that the U.S. armed forces are more agile, expeditionary, and responsive to global challenges," it said.

U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Zach Anderson

National Security

Ukraine's Military: Undermanned, Underfunded, and in Trouble

The Ukrainian government called for the mobilization of 130,000 troops on Monday, threatening to take on the Russian military if tensions on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula boil over into a full-scale armed conflict between the two nations. There's a major problem for leaders in Kiev, however: While Ukraine's military is stronger than the one Russia devastated when it conquered parts of Georgia in 2008, it is still under-funded, undermanned and poorly equipped to take on a vastly superior foe, experts said.

The tensions simmered as Russia and Ukraine also exchanged a war of words about their intentions. Russian forces seized or surrounded multiple Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, and Ukraine accused Russia of issuing an ultimatum to Ukrainian leaders to withdraw their forces, or watch their bases be stormed. Russia countered that it had issued no such demands, leaving it unclear what could occur.

Regardless, Ukraine is in trouble if Russia escalates its use of military force in Crimea. Ukraine's military has shrunk dramatically since 1991, when the Soviet Union fell to pieces and the Cold War ended. At that time, there were some 700,000 active-duty Ukrainian forces. The military there now numbers closer to 130,000, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer told Foreign Policy. Just as significantly, Ukraine has done little to upgrade their military equipment and weapons since then, leaving it a generation behind if facing the muscular Russian military.

The Ukrainian military was able to keep the best of its military equipment as it down-sized, but "has had a very rough time of it in budgets going back almost 20 years," Pifer, now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told FP. "They have purchased some new systems, but it's probably pretty much what they inherited in 1991."

The status of the Ukrainian military has become an increasingly important issue since Russia conquered and occupied Crimea late last week. Officials in the U.S., Ukraine, and other allied countries have decried the move as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, while Russia has said it is a necessary move to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea, a border peninsula where a majority of the population remains loyal to ousted President Victor Yanukovych  and sees the new pro-Western government in Kiev as illegitimate.

The Ukrainian military has affiliated itself with the United States and other allied countries for years, sending troops to Afghanistan, the Balkans, and on anti-piracy missions, said Adm. James Stavridis (ret.), who left the U.S. military as the supreme allied commander of NATO last year.

"They operated effectively with us during the Libyan crisis," Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told FP. "While not highly skilled or particularly well-equipped, I found their troops to be willing and capable within the bounds of their training and the restrictions of their less-than-optimal logistics."

Those shortcomings now loom large, however. On the navy side, for example, Ukraine's military has about 22 vessels of various kinds, including five missile cruisers, according to Jane's Defence Weekly. Ukraine had at least one other cruiser, the Ukraina, under construction, but delayed it several years ago and was considering allowing several other countries, including Russia, to use it as recently as last year. Russia was said to be blocking two Ukrainian military ships into port on Monday, and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had demanded that their crews surrender. Russia, by contrast, has dozens in the Crimean port of Sevastopol alone.

Ukraine also has a fleet of about 1,100 tanks, but hundreds of them are now rusting in a "tank grave yard" in the Ukrainian town of Kharkiv, about 20 miles from the Russian border, according to the Daily Mail newspaper in London. The best of the bunch is the T-84, an upgraded version of the Soviet-era T-80 tank. It has about a dozen of those.

Ukraine has about 200 combat aircraft, including a single squadron of Russian-built SU-27 fighter jets based in Crimea, one of which was spotted over the weekend armed with an unusually large 10-missile armament. But Russia's fighter jet fleet is much larger, and it is expanding its fleet of new SU-30SM planes through a deal between Putin's government and Irkut, the Russian aircraft maker. Overall, it is believed to have about 1,400 combat aircraft, according to the website Flightglobal.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and some of its allies have worked regularly with the Ukrainian military, primarily to build familiarity for when leaders decide to partner on missions. But F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on European security with the Rand Corporation, said much of it lately has been geared toward modernizing the organization of Ukraine's military. The force decided to drop its longtime policy of conscription last year, which includes compulsory military service for many. The Ukrainians are now realigning their military to fight in brigade-size formations including a few thousand soldiers, rather than larger division formations that cannot react as quickly.

"They are not equipped necessarily to stop an invasion or intervention by Russian forces," said Larrabee, who served on the White House National Security Council staff during the Cold War. "What the U.S. has concentrated on is trying to get them to be more interoperable with NATO forces."

Ukraine's small military budget also has prevented the U.S. from selling many vehicles and weapons, and armaments, said Pifer, the former ambassador. The United States gave Humvees, communication equipment and other gear to the Ukrainians within the last decade as they deployed forces alongside the U.S. in Iraq, but it has no big-ticket foreign military sales programs with Kiev that would provide, for instance, new attack helicopters or jets.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has continued to build tanks with its armor factories and export them to other countries. In one example, the country's state-run arms exporter, Ukrspecexport, reached a $100 million deal with the Ethiopian government last year to sell 200 tanks. If the tensions with Russia persist, Kiev might come to wish it had kept them at home.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images