●The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s current intended buy of nearly 2,500 airframes could be scaled back to roughly half that number, at an eventual annual savings of more than $5 billion. Cutting the program in half is adequate for the plausible high-end threats the nation faces; current plans are based too much on the need to replace a certain number of aging aircraft. (We can buy some cheaper planes and unmanned aircraft to replace the other half of the aging aircraft fleet.)
●Rather than design a new submarine to carry ballistic missiles, the Navy might simply refurbish the existing Trident submarine or reopen that production line. That and other nuclear force economies, including the gradual transition of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories away from the nuclear weapons design business, could yield $20 billion in 10-year savings in the national defense budget.
●Military compensation could be streamlined further, despite Congress’s recent reluctance to go along with even the modest changes the administration proposed last year. For example, in addition to increasing health insurance premiums modestly, military pensions might be reformed, with somewhat lower payments for working-age military retirees having served 20 years or more and the introduction of a 401(k)-like plan for those who never reach 20 years. (These latter individuals currently receive nothing.) The combined effects of all these changes could exceed $50 billion over 10 years.
●At present the United States relies almost exclusively on aircraft carriers, each carrying about 72 aircraft, to have short-range jets in position for possible conflict (with Iran in particular). Over the past decade, land-based combat jets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq have largely come home. While the United States occasionally rotates fighter jets through the small states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and maintains command and control and support assets in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, permanent land-based combat power is very limited. By seeking two or more places to station Air Force combat jets continuously in Gulf states, Washington could facilitate a reduction of two aircraft carrier battle groups in its fleet. Cutting two such groups and associated aircraft could save perhaps $50 billion over a decade, as this option would take time to implement even if regional allies quickly approved it.
Other, more modest changes, including scaling back purchases of the Littoral Combat Ship, curtailing production of the V-22 Osprey, carrying out another round of base closures, streamlining the acquisition workforce by reducing paperwork requirements, adopting best practices for weapons maintenance more widely and constraining intelligence spending modestly could save perhaps $40 billion to $50 billion over a decade. Together, gross savings from these ideas could approach $200 billion to $250 billion if implemented in the face of (likely) congressional and allied skepticism. Note, this is at most half of what sequestration would require if left in place over 10 years.
This list reveals an unpleasant reality that must be faced: It is hard to cut the defense budget. It can be done, but it requires lots of specific changes that come with some degree of associated strategic risk. To be sure, my suggestions reflect subjective judgment, and perhaps we can reduce further. Those who think so need to start explaining how they would do so — and budget dealmakers need to stop treating defense funds like chips in a deficit-reduction poker game.