On Sept. 10, 2001, the Defense Department was in the early throes of a buying spree that centered on heavy investments in futuristic platforms designed to create the most technologically advanced military the world had ever seen.
With the United States enjoying an extended period of peace, Pentagon planners had the luxury of envisioning what warfare would be like 10 to 20 years in the future and creating blueprints for how the military would stay well ahead of its peers around the world.
But in the course of one Tuesday morning, the world changed in ways no military planner could have ever predicted.
In the years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required a decidedly different set of equipment than the technologically advanced gear the military had long planned to procure. Rather than combatting an advanced state enemy, the military was fighting insurgents armed with the most basic equipment—and they were wreaking havoc on U.S. ground troops.
Human intelligence skills, protective gear, and surveillance equipment like drones quickly became the new must-haves in military circles.
Still, much of the Pentagon’s base budget—which more than doubled over the last decade—remained largely unchanged, with the services shielding their prized procurement programs from cuts.
Billions annually were reserved for pricey, long-term programs like the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the Air Force’s F/A-22 Raptor stealth fighter, and the multiservice F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The supplemental war budget, meanwhile, bought the body armor and mine-resistant vehicles urgently and desperately needed for the current conflicts.
Over time, however, the mentality within the Pentagon began to change. In 2004, the Army axed its advanced and expensive Comanche reconnaissance and attack helicopter. More recently, the Pentagon scrapped the $200 billion Future Combat Systems, an overly ambitious program that had been the core of the Army’s technology-transformation efforts.
The Air Force capped its F/A-22 purchases at 187 aircraft, despite calls in some corners for 381 of the advanced fighters, and the military is keeping a close eye on the problematic F-35. The Marine Corps’ version of the fighter is on a two-year probation, and could be nixed if military and industry officials cannot get the program under control.
In the last several years, dozens of other programs deemed critical to the military’s future a decade ago have been scaled back or canceled altogether. Some simply had become too expensive, while others, like the Airborne Laser, were no longer considered necessary.
A decade after the terrorist attacks, top military and defense officials are in the midst of a cost-cutting drill that requires planners to envision what the military requires—and what it can forego—in the years to come.
But looking at the past 10 years, can today’s military accurately project what it will require, both in terms of manpower and equipment, in 2021, and beyond?
“That’s the question we don’t know the answer to, and it makes all of these cuts so difficult,” said David Berteau, a defense-industry analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What do we need this military for? What is the national-security establishment going to be asked to accomplish?”
Some say they fear the military has gone too far, becoming too focused on its short-term needs and the types of low-intensity conflict it has encountered over the last decade. As defense budgets come down, the defense industry is growing increasingly worried that expensive programs designed to fight a more traditional enemy, such as the F-35, could be at risk.
“There is an increasing focus on the here and now,” said one defense-industry official who is not authorized to speak to the press. “And, unfortunately, to a degree that is going to seriously leave us without for the next generation.”
But Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said he sees the military coming full circle. In the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military maintained its long-term focus. Shortly after Defense Secretary Robert Gates took over the Pentagon in December 2006, however, the focus quickly turned to the short-term needs of a force at war.
As the wars wind down, the pendulum may now be swinging in the other direction, with planners focusing on the more distant future. “The department is starting to focus more on what are the long-term challenges, what are the long-term threats,” Harrison said.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the last decade, it is the need for military planners, the weapons they intend to buy, and the industrial base that builds those weapons to be flexible and adapt to ever-changing threats.
“I think given the uncertainty of the future threat environment, we should be placing a premium on flexibility,” Harrison said.
Dov Zakheim, who was the Pentagon’s comptroller in 2001, said the military is, in a sense, stuck with long-term planning. The services must buy equipment that lasts, in many cases, 30 years or more, requiring military officials to think of its needs decades into the future.
The key is buying systems that allow the military to operate in a variety of different scenarios. “If you have systems that are single-purpose, then you run into trouble," Zakheim said.
After all, the last decade has proven that the United States rarely fights any contingency it is anticipating.