The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), foreground, and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) conduct dual aircraft carrier strike group operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area. (Mass Communication Spec. 3rd Class Jake Greenberg/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. military is at an inflection point. Unable to remove itself completely from two protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been forced to respond to a resurgent Russia and a rising China, while remaining ready to combat myriad terrorist threats around the world.

The Pentagon’s $582.7 billion 2017 budget has attempted to put in place an architecture for these new challenges, but, according to a group of experts from the Center for New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, the Pentagon will have to make some hard decisions if it wants to effectively combat the threats of the future.

The three experts, Jerry Hendrix, Paul Scharre and Elbridge Colby, have instead put together a report that uses a notional budget that implements a 2 percent increase over the 2017 budget to shape the U.S. military for the next 10 years. 

“We have a military that’s in great shape to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army from the first Gulf War,” Colby said, adding that the Pentagon has focused on smaller numbers but invested in more high-tech pieces of equipment with mixed success. Under the proposed budget, the Navy would increase from 272 to 345 ships over 10 years, and the Air Force would gain more than 120  aircraft.

“Numbers matter,” Colby added.

To fix the current balance, Hendrix, Scharre and Colby’s report suggests that the Pentagon invest in what they call a “high-low mix.” This means that the Pentagon invests in both high-tech pieces of equipment,  such as the yet-to-be built B-21 long-range bomber, but also buys low-cost single-engine prop planes such as the A-29 Super Tucano to deal with threats in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

To pay for this rebalancing, the report proposes canceling the Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier and America-class amphibious assault ship production lines. The Ford line is estimated to cost more than $40 billion for the three proposed carriers, and the first ship in the class has already encountered numerous construction delays. Also proposed in the report is a projected $55 billion in savings over 10 years by cutting 5 percent of the Pentagon’s civilian workforce and 8,000 contractors.

According to the three experts, their proposed budget would ensure that the Navy still has 10 carriers by the end of the decade; it’s just that the ships would have a new role, acting more as prepositioned operating bases around the world. The shuttering of the Ford and America classes and the repurposing of the remaining U.S. carriers is a response, in part, to “anti-area, access denial.” Known as A2/AD in defense circles, the acronym is the latest buzzword for the threat posed by Russia’s and China’s militaries in the form of anti-ship ballistic missiles and advanced anti-air weapons that will effectively be able to keep U.S. forces from operating unhindered in large swaths of territory. For Russia, this could be in the Baltic Sea and for China, the South China Sea.

A2/AD is one of the driving forces behind the CNAS report, and to counter Russia and China’s burgeoning area denial systems, the budget proposal aims to invest in more unmanned systems and undersea capabilities, such as bolstering the U.S. submarine fleets substantially, to increase “survivability” in these contested environments.

[These are the surface-to-air missiles China apparently just deployed into the South China Sea]

Aside from current ships and vehicles, the report proposes investing in high-end technology such as direct energy lasers for aircraft, and outfitting more surface ships with electromagnetic rail guns to give them a precision strike ability unmatched by any other military in the world.

At the low end of the spectrum, the report’s proposed budget would leave alone the Special Operations communities and keep the U.S. drone fleets at their current levels. The A-10 attack aircraft would stay, and the Army would focus more on the “train, advise and assist” missions that have become a hallmark of U.S. military operations in the past two years.