Reshaped priorities: US defence budget 2017

US Department of Defense (DoD) has announced that the president would seek a $582.7bn defence budget for 2017 and reshape spending priorities to address five evolving challenges, including Russian aggression in Europe, the rise of China in the Asia Pacific, North Korea, Iran, and the ongoing fight against terrorist groups such as ISIS. The proposal is taking a ‘long-term view’ which will see a number of priorities re-jigged as the budget seeks a balance between modernisation and readiness. Claire Apthorp reports.


F-35

When the US president sent Congress a proposed budget request of $582.7bn to fund the Department of Defense (DoD) for the fiscal year 2017 in February, a few key issues stood out as priorities as the US looks to maintain its defences in a rapidly changing global security environment.

According to the DoD, this environment requires "new and innovative thinking, new operational posture in strategic regions, and new and enhanced capabilities" to confront international challenges.

Challenges include a mix of state and terror-based threats, namely, "recent strategic threats and changes that have taken place in Asia, the Middle East and Europe", along with "Russian aggression, terrorism by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and others, and China's island building and claims of sovereignty in international waters". All of these issues, along with "threats and actions originating in Iran and North Korea", have prompted changes in the US' strategic outlook and operational commitments.

In short, the proposal said, "today's security environment is dramatically different from the one the department has been engaged with for the last 25 years, and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting".

Strategic changes

This new way of thinking will include developing new operational concepts, pioneering and dominating technology frontiers, reforming defence enterprise, and building "the force of the future" as it looks to prepare for today's fights, as well as those that might come in ten, 20 or 30 years' time.

Counter-terrorism efforts around the globe will rely on equipment and logistical support funding for US military forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and other areas in the region, while continuing to build capacity for foreign security forces in support of counterterrorism activities. At the same time, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support for counterterrorism will build up to 90 total combat air patrols for combatant commands.

"Tackling Russia's hostilities in Eastern Europe will include investment in various technologies, including air defence systems."

Tackling Russia's hostilities in Eastern Europe will include investment in various technologies, including air defence systems, unmanned systems, long-range bombers and long-range stand-off cruise missiles. Some $3.4bn will be channelled into equipment, training and support - including three army brigade combat teams in Europe at all times - to assist NATO allies in deterring Russian aggression.

Iran's influence in the Middle East will be tackled with continued efforts to "to hold Iran accountable for its destabilising behaviour by advancing preparations, posture, regional partnerships, and planning to preserve the president's options for any contingency", while $145.8m has been requested to increase support to Israel to fund cooperative defence programmes including the partnership to develop the Iron Dome and David's Sling and Arrow missile defence systems.

Supporting US economic and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region will require a stronger US presence in the region, with Guam to be built up as a strategic hub, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft rotations introduced in Singapore, the positioning of F-35 fighters in Japan, and rotational activities implemented in Northern Australia.

The shape of the future force

The proposed budget aims to build its future force to achieve these capabilities in a way that strikes a balance between "the modernisation of the joint force, its size and its readiness".

Readiness is a major concern for any military force, reflecting as it does its ability to react to quickly evolving situations anywhere in the world. Under the 2017 budget proposal, funding will be channelled into building full-spectrum combat readiness.

Among the priorities are plans for the US Army to optimise combat training centre throughput capacity to provide combat teams with increased opportunities for full-spectrum training. The navy will continue to implement its Optimum Fleet Response Plan to balance maintenance and training while maximising the employability of naval forces. The US Air Force should expect to maximise home station training opportunities, with funding to prioritise the modernisation and expansion of existing training ranges and exercises in the US. The US Marine Corps will receive full funding of integrated combined arms exercises for all elements of its Marine Air Ground Task Forces.

The US military, under this proposed budget, will have an army force of 990,000 soldiers - 460,000 in the active army, 335,000 in the Army National Guard, and 195,000 in the reserve force - to form a total of 56 army brigade combat teams and associated enablers.

he budget funds a marine corps force of 182,000 active-duty and 38,500 reserve personnel, with the navy budget providing for a combined active/reserve force of 380,900 sailors. The proposed 55 tactical squadrons of the air force will be comprised of 491,000 active duty, reserve and National Guard Airmen.

Beyond the reduction of 10,000 personnel from the army - which has been planned for some time - the force size will remain largely unchanged. In a DoD press briefing on the proposal, Undersecretary of Defense Michael J. McCord said: "We didn't cut the size of the force in any substantial part. I'm not going to say there wasn't one change to anything anywhere in the department, but generally the force structure plan that we had before is the force structure plan we have now."

Funding for equipment programmes

What has changed is the shape of the budget, with modernisation taking the brunt of the reduction in order to balance the books between modernisation, size and readiness.

"The funding available for modernisation - being the most 'volatile' account - saw some reductions, including 24 fewer Black Hawk helicopters."

McCord pointed out that while no programmes were terminated in this effort, the funding available for modernisation - being the most 'volatile' account - saw some reductions, including 24 fewer Black Hawk helicopters, five fewer Joint Strike Fighter aircraft for the air force, and fewer V-22 helicopters.

On the plus side, the Long-Range Strike Bomber will see continued development, as will the KC-46A Pegasus refuelling tanker, with money earmarked to buy 15 tankers in FY 2017. Some $89m will go toward the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Air Surveillance and Strike programme (now restructured and renamed the Carrier Based Aerial Refuelling System), while two MQ-4C Triton unmanned maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft will be funded with $759m to maximise capabilities and extend the reach of the force's airborne sensors. Procurement of the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft remains steady under the proposal, while $1.1bn will go toward 52 Apache helicopters and $1bn toward 36 Black Hawk helicopters for the army.

A new shoulder-launched weapon will replace the army tactical missile system and the Stryker armoured fighting vehicles can expect to see a firepower boost on top of lethality upgrades added in FY 2016, while 2,020 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles are safe under a $735m investment. A further $159m will be ring fenced for the amphibious combat vehicle set to replace the Marine Corps' amphibious assault vehicle.

On the maritime side, seven major vessels are to be procured under the FY 2017 budget, to increase the battle force by 28 ships to 308 ships over the coming five years. Funding will go towards two Virginia-class attack submarines, as well as advanced undersea attack capabilities including an improved MK-48 torpedo and unmanned underwater vehicles. Some $3.2bn will be invested in two DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, while the number of the planned littoral combat ship/fast frigate procurement will fall by twelve ships to 40.