A top Washington think tank is calling on the Pentagon to prioritize naval and air forces during upcoming budget cuts, while controlling requirements for new systems, focusing investment on weapons research, and cutting big-ticket programs.

These overarching recommendations apply to four different Pentagon budget-cutting scenarios–which vary by the size of potential future spending reductions–detailed in a report the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) unveiled last Friday.

The Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity report, part of a year-long project called Responsible Defense at CNAS, looks at how the United States can “maximize its national security in an era of defense spending reductions.”

A top principle overriding the report’s recommendation is that CNAS believes naval and air should be prioritized in budgeting, said Travis Sharp, who wrote the report with David Barno and Nora Bensahel.

The report argues the Pentagon should not divide the budget evenly among the services. It maintains large active-duty ground forces will be needed less in the future, as troops withdraw from Afghanistan, and the military needs to “bolster its influence in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Such influence can be enhanced, CNAS argues, “by engaging more with key allies and by developing long-range and precision weapons, particularly as potential adversaries like China further develop anti-access capabilities.”

Sharp, speaking at a National Press Club event last Friday, acknowledged he believes “implementing this prioritization will be very difficult,” for reasons including the need to support the ongoing ground war and have ground forces ready for unexpected future conflicts. Naval and air forces are capital-intensive and expensive, and the Pentagon is bracing for austere budgets, he acknowledged at the event.

Still, the CNAS report maintains that cutting “the number of ground forces may incur less risk than canceling naval and air modernization programs because the U.S. military can build up additional ground forces more quickly than it can acquire additional naval and air forces once production lines have closed.”

The report also asserts that the military should generate requirements for new weapon systems “based on realistic assessments of likely threats, not on the pursuit of maximalist capabilities.” It argues that the Pentagon cannot afford to continue crafting weapon system requirements, while preparing for a wide range of potential threats, “that are often unmoored from either technological limits or defined enemy capabilities.” CNAS recommends the military “return to a more restrictive planning and acquisition system that applies limited resources to the most serious threats to U.S. vital interests.”

The think tank’s report, still, maintains in the absence of major near-term threats, the Pentagon should “pursue research and development to build a bridge between current weapons systems and highly capable future systems.”

“The U.S. military should increase investments in certain research and development programs to discover breakthrough technologies, such as stealthy, long-range, combat-capable unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), along with unmanned submersibles,” it states. Prioritizing research and development will require new funds, CNAS acknowledges, which it says can come from curtailing or ending purchases of expensive specialized weapons.

The think tank also calls for the Pentagon to increase interdependence across the military services, which it maintains have expensive and often redundant capabilities including aircraft. It also argues the Army and Marine Corps in particular should transfer more of their “expensive heavy capabilities”–including armor, artillery, and fixed-wing aircraft–to their reserve components to save money while maintaining a strategic hedge.

CNAS’ report lays out four scenarios for cutting weapon systems, which would be made if the Pentagon’s budget is cut over the next decade by either $350 billion-$400 billion, $500 billion-$550 billion, $650 billion-$700 billion, or $800 billion-$850 billion.

The Pentagon says the Budget Control Act of 2011, signed by President Barack Obama in August, cuts $450 billion over the next decade from its spending plans. The law created a 12-member congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that is weighing up to $1.5 trillion in additional government-wide savings, though if it and Congress can’t agree on a plan defense spending automatically will be cut by roughly $500 billion more through a sequestration process.

While the makeup of varied weapons systems differ in CNAS’ four budget scenarios, those setups all have some overarching similarities. They would cancel or significantly delay the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Joint Tactical Radio System efforts. They would retire six CG-47 cruisers and trim the strategic airlift fleet from 316 to 301 aircraft, while reducing the planned procurement of Littoral Combat Ships and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The scenarios all would prioritize investment in “breakthrough technologies for stealthy, long-range sea- and ground-based combat UASs, along with unmanned submersibles.” They also would prioritize operational activities tied to theater missile defense programs–including the Aegis sea-based system–and provide less funding for experimental national missile defense efforts.

Michèle Flournoy, the current under secretary of defense for policy, helped found CNAS in 2007.