Rumsfeld’s Gone…Now What About Technology?

The CINC has spoken: the SECDEF will be replaced by Bob Gates, no stranger to Washington policy circles, the national intelligence community, nor to the Pentagon. Putting politics aside for a moment (well, mostly aside since they factor heavily into these discussions): What’s next for the DoD, the budget, and our embedded industry?

Whew! Big questions, and more important and smarter people than me are asking them.  People like, The American People, Congress, our allies, our service men and women, and Washington insiders.  Today, I was invited to participate a big league telecon with Larry Korb, former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan years. This urgent call was orchestrated by the Center for American Progress  and included members of the press from organizations including Defense News, Army Times (recall their recent editorial: “Time for Rumsfeld to go”?), Associated Press, and several others.

While the big questions all surrounded how to salvage America’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as how to deal with North Korea, China and Iran, issues were discussed pertaining to the U.S. DoD budget, military doctrine and possible affects on military programs.  That’s what I’ll focus on here.

The mainstream media is calling this week’s mid-term elections a referendum on President Bush and his policies, with the war in Iraq the number one issue, topping out at about 45% in exit polls. But also on the list of voter gripes is our nation’s HUGE budget deficit, which according to Bloomberg News went from a forecasted surplus at the end of Clinton’s term to a $413 billion forecasted deficit in 2004. The GWOT (global war on terror) has been funded using regular DoD fiscal budget funds, plus a series of plus-ups approved by Congress. Larry Korb intimated today that part of the reason Rumsfeld was sacrificed was the fiscal UNRESTRAINT exercised by the DoD and the Administration.

He pointed out Rumsfeld’s recent $160 billion supplement on top of the recent bridge fund (on top of the “normal” DoD budget) has lead to “horrible budget problems”, but he thinks it’s unlikely that spending cuts will occur.  Instead, he stopped short of predicting that the plus-ups will end (I am convinced they will) but that the Services will need to live within their “normal” budgets.  And while he sees no “wholesale baseline changes in programs”, I believe it’s a certainty that with more money allocated to beans, boots and bullets, military electronics programs will have to suffer. But will they? Maybe not so much.

So far, the Services have been stretching out programs here and there. The Navy is pushing out dates for next-gen destroyers, and stretching out submarine deliveries; the Army is scaling back Future Combat Systems; and the Air Force is more slowly exercising JSF commitments. But the good news is that these programs will continue, albeit at slower rates as money is funneled to O&M buckets necessary for the GWOT.  Mr. Korb even went on to say that the F/A-22 Raptor – a program I am still shocked has continued this long – is too much on “auto pilot” to change. (Bad news folks: ain’t much COTS on an F/A-22.)

In fact, he argued that despite Rumsfeld’s vision as a change agent in streamlining military doctrine to a lighter and nimbler force, most of the DoD has operated on auto pilot started during the Clinton administration. This is consistent with the typical 10-year military program life cycle, and the basis for my magazine Military Embedded Systems.

I think that except for the SECDEF’s penchant for bull-in-a-china-shop antagonism with his military leaders, and wading in to cancel heavy iron Army programs like Crusader (remember that one?), we’ve perhaps only seen his vision executed in the “shock and awe” strategy of OIF. And, maybe, in the under-budgeted number of troops and materiel to capture AND HOLD ground in Iraq in OEF.

So in the end, it’s cautiously good news all around. There may be an Iraq end-game strategy proposed and started with incoming Secretary Gates (if confirmed by Congress), and the Services and their programs shouldn’t be decimated by a Democratic Congress hungry for change (and blame).

We can all soon rest easier, knowing fewer of our fighting forces may be in harm’s way in a few years, and that our embedded industry – which relies so heavily on the DoD budget – should keep humming along but only at a slightly slower rate. Let’s hope Mr. Korb is right on all counts.