WASHINGTON: Trump-era nuclear weapons, the Army’s new fighting vehicle and reconnaissance rotorcraft, and the venerable MQ-9 Reaper are all programs that could be on the chopping block in the Pentagon’s upcoming fiscal year 2023 budget request, a panel of defense experts predicted today.
The Biden administration is behind schedule on submitting its FY23 budget (which, by statute, should have been submitted to Congress today). In lieu of a new spending request, five defense experts gathered for a virtual roundtable about what the upcoming budget could include — and what could be cut as the administration seeks out cost savings.
Two of those programs seen as most vulnerable are a pair of new nuclear weapons that were announced as part of the Trump Administration’s nuclear posture review in 2018: the W76-2 nuclear warhead — a low-yield nuke launched from submarines, which first deployed in 2019 — and the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.
Both President Joe Biden and progressive lawmakers have signaled a desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and canceling these programs gives him a political win without having to make a major sacrifice to nuclear capability, said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of defense programs at the Center for a New American Security.
“It’s not a tremendous loss, but it is a tangible thing that we are taking away without really cutting into the major acquisition programs,” such as new intercontinental ballistic missiles, the B-21 bomber or a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile, she said. “It’s making a sort of gesture in that direction without having to cut off an entire limb.”
Experts also raised the possibility that the Pentagon targets Army programs for cancelations in FY23. Tom Spoehr, who leads the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, pointed to the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, which Army Futures Command hopes to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Similarly, the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft — a new rotorcraft that will replace the service’s Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters — could also face potential cancellation, said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“That’s a program that if it doesn’t get killed outright, I think it gets pushed out, slipped into the future to pay bills,” Harrison said, adding that it will be difficult for the Army to justify why it needs that capability.
“If we’re supposed to be focused on high-end competition, helicopters aren’t going to get anywhere near the fight,” Harrison said. In a fight against low-end threats, the MQ-1C Grey Eagle drone “can provide that scouting and a limited attack capability, and you’ve got your legacy helicopters that you can keep around a little bit longer.”
Spoehr added that the OMFV is “desperately needed” to replace to 40 year old Bradley, but that the Army may have few other choices if it needs to find funding for other priorities.
Meanwhile, the MQ-9 Reaper is an example of a legacy program that could continue to face scrutiny as counterinsurgency missions become less of a priority for the department, said Travis Sharp, a fellow for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“The system has become a symbol. It’s closely tied to the type of counterterrorism operations that the United States has been doing over the last 20 years. There’s a feeling that we need to transition to great power competition,” he said. “The question remains, can people kind of break out of this way that they’ve been thinking about systems like the MQ-9 for the last couple of decades?”
The Road Ahead
Defense experts spoke a little more than a week before the Feb. 18 expiration of the continuing resolution currently funding the government. On Sunday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told MSNBC that Congress will likely approve another stopgap CR to give lawmakers more time to come to a spending agreement for the rest of the year, with some reports emerging Monday of roughly a roughly month-long extension in the works.
Despite the sluggish pace of passing a FY22 budget — and the potential negative effects a yearlong CR could have on the pace and cost of weapons acquisition — experts agreed that the FY23 budget request would likely come out several weeks after the National Defense Strategy is released, likely in early March.
While a topline number for the defense budget has not been announced, experts speculated that the defense topline could range from $733 billion to $765 billion.
Mackenzie Eaglen, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Initiative, expects that the FY23 budget will continue to divest legacy equipment in order to make funding available for research and development.
Last year, the department divested a total $3 billion worth of equipment, and “I think they’ll attempt to triple if not quadruple that number next year,” she said.
The biggest news to come out of the Pentagon’s FY23 budget request may not have anything to do with defense, said Harrison.
“What assumptions does [the Office of Management and Budget] make in their official budget documents for what inflation will be in the future? I think the markets are going to be looking at that number,” he said.
“If they put realistic inflation assumptions in there. It will be an official Biden administration government document that is telling everyone that higher than historical inflation will be continuing for years to come. And I think that that’s going to be a downer, quite frankly, on the markets.”
Trump-era nukes, Army programs likeliest FY23 budget cuts: Experts – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Valerie Insinna for breakingdefense.com