Four defense think tanks agreed on many areas where the defense budget should be cut and reprioritized to keep within budgetary limitations while still preserving its most important capabilities. Unfortunately for the Navy and Marine Corps, at-sea assets were not one of the areas of consensus.

Some decisions were easy for the groups, who were tasked with creating two different spending plans for fiscal years 2015 to 2024: one adhering to full sequestration cuts as currently written in law, and one splitting the difference between sequestration and the spending path the Pentagon had laid out in its FY ’14 budget request.

The USS Freedom (LCS-1) deployment to Singapore has been among the most visible results of the Asia-Pacific rebalance. Freedom, above, departs from Changi Naval Base in Singapore on July 19, 2013. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy.
What to do with the Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers, Littoral Combat Ships and other classes in a time of changing missions and suppressed budgets has frustrated planners in and out of government. Freedom, above, departs from Changi Naval Base in Singapore on July 19, 2013. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy.

For example, cutting Army infantry, armored and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams was a virtually unanimous decision for the participants — American Enterprise Institute, Center for a New American Security, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

But what to do about the Marine Corps as it seeks to shed its “second land army” reputation and focus on amphibious operations? Under full sequestration, the think tanks would cut between zero and 10 infantry battalions; cut between zero and seven artillery battalions; cut between zero and 44,000 Marines from the total end strength; and either cut seven amphibious warships from the fleet or add three. CNAS supported adding the amphibs and maintaining the current Marine Corps force structure, while CSIS and AEI supported the steepest cuts and CSBA fell about halfway in the middle. In the half-sequester scenario, CNAS even proposed adding an artillery battalion and 500 Marines, as well as shielding the Marine Corps from readiness cuts the other three services would face, further adding to the confusion over the service’s role and funding requirements going forward.

The groups’ assessment of the Navy’s fleet composition was no more unified. Though they all agreed that the aircraft carrier fleet should shrink by two to four ships, two groups believed the destroyer fleet should shrink by four ships and two groups by 10 ships – this while the Navy and Congress have worked hard to squeeze an extra destroyer into the multiyear buy. CNAS proposed leaving the submarine fleet as is, while CSIS would buy 10 more. AEI would add four Littoral Combat Ships while CSIS would reduce the planned 52-ship buy by 18.

Between the carriers, destroyers, attack subs, LCS and amphibs, CNAS would reduce the fleet by only seven ships, AEI by 15, CSIS by 22, and CSBA by 27.

As for the readiness accounts–the unit training and the ship maintenance to keep ships operating forward–the groups also disagreed. Under full sequestration, CSIS would add a net $7 billion, though that money gets massively shifted around compared to the president’s budget request, which served as the baseline in this exercise. On the other extreme, CSBA would cut readiness accounts by $31 billion.

The lack of consensus among the think tanks on these topics is not unlike the conversations happening within Congress and between the Capitol and the Pentagon. The Navy has tried retiring seven cruisers and two amphibs for several years now, and Congress responded by creating a funding account that may only be used for operations and maintenance of those ships. In its FY ’14 defense bill, Congress even added legislative language that forces the Navy to begin modernizing the ships as well. The Pentagon has considered reducing the size of the aircraft carrier fleet only to face an emphatic “no” from lawmakers. And most recently, in response to news that the Pentagon would halt the LCS program after the current block buy of ships, Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), the newest member of Congress, wrote to President Barack Obama on Feb. 6 to urge him to support the program. Twenty-one other congressmen joined Byrne in pushing for the full 52-ship program, in clear contrast to what the think tanks would recommend.