U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced a new effort focused on keeping and extending American military superiority.
The new “Defense Innovation Initiative” is a push for breakthroughs in cutting-edge technology, from robotics to big data and even three-dimension printing.
Secretary Hagel talked about the initiative at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California where he warned the Pentagon’s technological advantage was eroding.
“And while we spent over a decade focused on grinding stability operations, countries like Russia and China have been heavily investing in military modernization programs to blunt our military’s technological edge,” he said.
Hagel said financial management will be critical to change. He called on Congress to provide the military with an actual budget rather than passing temporary funding bills.
He warned sequestration (automatic spending cuts) could cause $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade. And he also warned of a potential budget hole of more than $70 billion over the next five years if Congress continues to block the Pentagon’s money-saving proposals, which include retiring old aircraft and closing bases.
“Today, DoD has 24 percent excess capacity in our basing and facilities...excess capacity that is costing us billions of dollars every year - money that could otherwise be invested maintaining our military’s edge,” he said.
But Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Defense Department should "point the finger" at itself. He says the Pentagon has programmed inefficiently and shown little restraint on spending.
“There’s no clear program plan. There’s no clear future defense plan so - yes, the Congress has pushed for often arbitrary cuts but at the same time the department has to take responsibility and it hasn’t done that yet,” he said.
As part of the initiative, Hagel has formed a panel to propose fresh ideas for the way the Pentagon plans and pays to meet challenges to the military’s competitive edge.
US nuclear force
On Friday, Hagel made a stop at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, home to a third of America’s nuclear arsenal, to tour the facilities and meet with airmen protecting and maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons.
The secretary said the U.S. nuclear force has systematic problems — including inadequate staffing, infrastructure, equipment, accountability and declining morale — that could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of elements of the force in the future, if not quickly addressed.
“The internal and external reviews I ordered show that a consistent lack of investment and support for our nuclear forces over far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stress,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon before beginning his trip.
At Minot, U.S. Air Force Tech Sergeant Forest Porter offered a case in point, saying old equipment at the base leads to tough maintenance problems. He said Minot uses circuit breakers from the 1960s that are no longer made by the manufacturer.
"Yeah, I can’t replace them, so that creates a little frustration on our end because we know how to fix it, we know what we need to do, but then that’s the systemic problem," Porter said. "We need depot engineers, contracts to get all that money and get them bought and then put out in the system, and that takes time.”
It took five decades before the military paid to give each launch control center at Minot a deep cleaning. First Lieutenant Dawn Sanderson said the airmen didn't notice how bad it was until crews started peeling away the linings of the ceilings.
“I have them come back to me and talk to me, and they’re like, ‘There were just clobs of dust falling on me,’ " said Sanderson.
The Air Force has allocated $160 million in fiscal year 2014 and $150 million in fiscal year 2015 to address some of these shortfalls. That is why the walls are getting cleaned. Hagel said the government will need to invest billions of dollars more in nuclear enterprise over the next five years.
Defense analyst Anthony Cordesman said the military must make its nuclear arsenal a priority.
“You cannot simply have an inventory you cannot trust,” said Cordesman. "There are still massive numbers of thermonuclear weapons targeted on the United States. If we don’t have an effective and convincing deterrent, we can’t rely on good intentions to provide us with security for the future."
Hagel echoed the program’s importance while speaking with those serving at Minot.
“You are an indispensable element of our national security,” said Hagel. "You are the main deterrent for the security of this country.”