May 312012

This Rock Could Spy on You for Decades



By Noah Shachtman

May 29, 2012




A Lockheed Martin “unattended ground sensor,” or UGS, disguised as a rock.

Photo: Lockheed Martin



A soldier attaches an unattended sensor to the side of a mock building.

Photo: U.S. Army



A Textron “MicroObserver” UGS, buried in the ground.

Photo: Textron



A smaller model of the “MicroObserver” UGS.

Photo: Textron



A soldier emplaces an older UGS.

Photo: BAE Systems



Northrop Grumman’s “Scorpion” suite of unattended sensors.

Photo: Northrop Grumman

***  Lockheed promotion video ***

A Lockheed promotion video for its unattended sensor network.



America is supposed to wind down its war in Afghanistan by 2014. But U.S. forces may continue to track Afghans for years after the conflict is officially done. Palm-sized sensors, developed for the American military, will remain littered across the Afghan countryside — detecting anyone who moves nearby and reporting their locations back to a remote headquarters. Some of these surveillance tools could be buried in the ground, all-but-unnoticeable by passersby. Others might be disguised as rocks, with wafer-sized, solar-rechargeable batteries that could enable the sensors’ operation for perhaps as long as two decades, if their makers are to be believed.

Traditionally, when armies clash, they leave behind a horrific legacy: leftover mines which can blow civilians apart long after the shooting war is over. These “unattended ground sensors,” or UGSs, won’t do that kind of damage. But they could give the Pentagon an enduring ability to monitor a one-time battlefield long, long after regular American forces are supposed to have returned home.

“Were going to leave behind a lot of special operators in Afghanistan. And they need the kind of capability that’s easy to put out so they can monitor a village without a lot of overt U.S.-made material on pathways and roadways,” says Matt Plyburn, an executive at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor.





Members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit clandestinely monitor signals in a 2010 field test.

Photo: USMC


The U.S. military has used unattended ground sensors in one form or another since 1966, when American forces dropped acoustic monitors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Tens of thousands of UGSs have been emplaced around Afghanistan and Iraq, forming electronic perimeters around combat outposts and keeping tabs on remote locations. It’s a way to monitor the largest possible area with the smallest number of troops.

“You use them to cover up your dead space — the areas you’re concerned about but can’t cover with other ISR [intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance] assets,” says Lt. Col. Matt Russell, an Army program manager overseeing the deployment of unattended sensors.

But earlier UGSs — even ones of the recent past — were relatively large and clunky, prone to false alarms, and had lifespans measurable in days or weeks. “What we found in the field was significant under-usage,” Russell tells Danger Room. Plans to incorporate them into every combat brigade fizzled as the Army’s proposed $200 billion revamp, Future Combat Systems, went south.

The new models are dramatically smaller and consume far less power, enabling them to operate for months — maybe even years — at a time with only the slimmest chance of being detected. Lockheed calls them “field and forget” systems for “persistent surveillance.”

And they won’t just be used overseas. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol today employs more than 7,500 UGSs on the Mexican border to spot illegal migrants. Defense contractors believe one of the biggest markets for the next generation of the sensors will be here at home.

“They could be used for border security or even around corporate headquarters,” Plyburn tells Danger Room.


In early 2011, commanders in Afghanistan issued an “urgent operational needs statement” for better sensors. In response, the Army shipped a new line of about 1,500 “expendable” UGSs to the warzone. The size of a few stacked hockey pucks with a four-inch antenna, these sensors are easily hidden, and can “pick up wheels or footprints” for up to three months at a time, Russell says. It’s a perfect surveillance tool for the remote valleys of eastern Afghanistan.

Soon, when one of the sensors picks up a signal, it’ll queue a spy blimp to focus in on the spot. “That’s a capability coming to a theater near you soon,” he adds.

Even more sophisticated are the UGSs being tested northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, at a Lockheed proving ground. Arrays of up to 50 palm-sized acoustic and seismic sensors form a mesh network. When one sensor detects a person or a vehicle passing by, it uses unlicensed radio frequency bands to pass an alert from one node to the next. The alert finally hits a communications gateway, which can send the signal via satellite, tactical radio network, or Wi-Fi to a command and control center. That signal can tip off additional sensors — or it can send a Twitter-like message to an intelligence officer’s phone or tablet.

When they’re not picking up signals or passing along messages, the sensors are all-but-shut-down, barely consuming any power. That allows them to last for weeks, buried underground. Or the sensors can be encased in hollow “rocks” equipped with miniature solar panels. A quick recharge from the sun will allow the sensor to “get through the night anywhere on Earth that U.S. forces operate,” says Plyburn.

Plyburn claims that the sensor’s battery, about the size of a postage stamp, has been able to go through 80,000 recharges, compared to a few hundred cycles for a typical lithium-ion battery. Even if he’s off by a factor of 10, the sensor’s battery could keep the machine operational for nearly twenty-two years.

Russell is skeptical of these assertions of longevity. “I’m sure there are a lot of claims by contractors,” he says. “My experience is: the longer the lifespan, the bigger the battery.”

Nor does Lockheed currently have a contract with Defense Department to mass-produce the sensors. But Plyburn says there has been interest around the armed forces, especially since the system is relatively cheap. Plyburn says each sensor could cost as little as $1,000 each — practically expendable for a military paying $80,000 for a single guided artillery round.

Lockheed isn’t the only company claiming that its sensors can operate for years on end. U.S. Special Operations Command has handed out at least $12 million in UGS contracts to tiny Camgian Microsystems, based out of Starksville, Mississippi. Company CEO Gary Butler, who spent years developing ultra-low power integrated circuits for Darpa, was awarded in March a patent for such a next-gen unattended sensor suite.

Rather than relaying alerts from node to node, each of Butler’s sensors is designed to send signals directly to a satellite — speeding up notifications, and cutting down on power consumed. Rather than a simple acoustic or seismic detector, the sensor relies a steerable, phased-array radar and moving-target indicator algorithms. That could give it a much greater ability to detect people and vehicles on the run. High-powered solar cells provide will enable up to “500,000 recharge cycles” could give the sensor a “10-20 year life,” according to the patent.

Butler won’t say how U.S. special operators are using his research, if at all. But when I ask him about the possibility of leaving UGS networks behind after American troops have officially left, Butler calls that “plausible. Very Plausible.”

Camgian’s patent claims that the sensor’s ease-of-use and small size means it “is easily emplaced in difficult areas, using airborne assets such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” Edward Carapezza, who has been overseeing UGS research for more than two decades, says drones are already dropping unattended sensors into hostile locations.

“In certain areas, we certainly are using unmanned vehicles and unattended sensors together,” says Carapezza, who now works at the defense contractor General Atomics. He declined to name where these operations were being conducted. He simply gave the rationale for the missions. “Instead of sending patrols of our guys in, we send in drones and unattended sensors — dropping arrays, locating bad guys, and then putting weapons on target.”

The “MicroObserver” UGS from defense contractor Textron has been in the field since 2008. The U.S. Army is currently using the sensors in Afghanistan. “Another customer — we’re not allowed to say who or where — used it as part of a comprehensive border security program in a Middle Eastern country,” says Patty Shafer, a Textron executive.

Textron’s seismic sensors come in two varieties. The smaller, three inch-long model, weighing 1.4 pounds, will last about a month. The bigger system, a 4.4 pound spike, can be buried in the ground and gather intelligence for more than two years. It can detect and characterize people from 100 meters away, and vehicles from three times that distance, Shafer says. A conformal antenna allows it to communicate with a gateway five kilometers away.

Northrop Grumman employs a family of sensors for its Scorpion surveillance network.

“Seismic sensors work well detecting vehicles on bumpy roads, but lose range as the road becomes smoother, or the vehicle lighter. Typically, magnetic sensors sense only large vehicles at fairly short distances. The range of acoustic sensors depends upon environmental conditions such as humidity and surroundings. Most sense engine exhaust noise or other periodic pulse trains and measure the period to determine numbers of cylinders and classify the source,” explains a Northrop presentation to an academic conference on unattended sensors.

The Army has purchased over a thousand of the original versions, with an average of four sensors, each. The vast majority have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 20 Scorpion II systems were recently bought by the Army Research Lab. The sensors can today spot people from 800 meters away, and vehicles from 2,100 meters. The sensors’ batteries wear out after a month.

These might have been eye-popping results, not long ago. But the U.S. military now has plans to keep its network of tiny, hidden spies going for much longer than that.


Direct Link:

Feb 272012

Afghanistan rioters injure 7 U.S. soldiers

Crowds in Kunduz province angry over Koran burnings throw grenades. At Jalalabad airport, a car bomb kills up to nine Afghan civilians and security personnel.

Los Angeles Times
By Aimal Yaqubi
February 26, 2012
Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses journalists


The scope of the protests over the burning of Korans at a U.S. base appeared to be narrowing after President Hamid Karzai went on national television and appealed for calm. (S. Sabawoon, European Pressphoto Agency / February 26, 2012)


Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —
Afghans rioting over the burning of Korans at a U.S. military installation hurled grenades at an American base in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, injuring at least seven American soldiers, Afghan officials said. Early Monday, a car bomb exploded outside the main airport in eastern Afghanistan, killing up to nine people, according to provincial police.

No Americans were killed or injured in the blast on the outskirts of Jalalabad, whose airport also is home to a Western military base, an official with the international coalition said. The dead were Afghan civilians and security personnel, said police spokesman Hazrat Mohammad Zamari.

The grenade attack Sunday in Kunduz province, in the country’s north, came on the sixth day of protests over Korans being sent, apparently by accident, to the trash incinerator at a base north of the Afghan capital. The violence has left nearly 40 people dead, including four American service members, but the scope of the protests appeared to be narrowing after President Hamid Karzai went on national television and appealed for calm.

Officials in Kunduz province blamed “agitators” sheltering among the crowd of protesters for the grenade attack in the Imam Sahib district. In the past, insurgents have used large-scale demonstrations to slip gunmen into crowds.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Interior Ministry acknowledged Sunday that one of its workers was the key suspect in the deaths of two American military officers who were gunned down at their desks in a tightly guarded command-and-control center a day earlier.

That attack on Saturday prompted the commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, to take the unprecedented step of immediately pulling Western military advisors out of Afghan government ministries. The incident called into question Western willingness to continue training and advising Afghan troops and government bodies amid an unrelenting spate of turncoat shootings.

The suspect remained at large, the ministry said in a statement, adding that “serious efforts by Afghan security forces are underway to capture him.”

For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, the attack was particularly worrisome because it involved an individual with access to highly sensitive information. Afghan officials said the suspect was a 25-year-old intelligence officer who had obtained the code needed to enter the restricted area where the two U.S. officers were working. Officials said the two were shot in the back of the head.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Sunday in a television interview that the outbreak of violence and the resulting American deaths should not lead to any precipitous decisions about the pace of the drawdown of Western troops.

“This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” the ambassador told CNN.

“We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which Al Qaeda is not coming back.”

Yaqubi is a special correspondent.

Jan 282012
The New York Times
North Arabian Sea Journal
January 25, 2012



Potent Sting Is Prepared in the Belly of a Warship


Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
An ordnance handler assembles a 500-pound training bomb aboard the Stennis.


ABOARD THE U.S.S. JOHN C. STENNIS, in the North Arabian Sea — Depending on who describes it, a nuclear aircraft carrier can be any number of things: an instrument of national will, a nemesis to be threatened and watched, a fast-moving and wide-ranging city at sea.

When you are aboard one, though, a carrier is an immense warren of spaces and passageways between bulkheads, each with a purpose. There are galleys and offices, stores and workshops, clinics and weight rooms, a barber shop, a recycling center, machine rooms, nuclear reactors and more.

And here was the room that gives the ship its sting: the primary bomb-assembly magazine.

On this night, 17 sailors had climbed through a small circular scuttle on the mess deck and then descended, handhold by foothold, deep below the water line to a space that few sailors see. Nine levels below the flight deck, behind a heavy locked door, in a large, brightly lighted room arrayed with firefighting sprinklers, a dozen BLU-111 bomb bodies rested on metal pallets on the nonskid floor.

It was late, and much of the ship’s crew was asleep. The carrier vibrated as its four screws cut through the dark sea off Pakistan’s southwestern coast.

Several sailors in red shirts took positions near a metal rack topped with rollers. Others carried large metal fins. Still more pried open boxes holding switches and fuzes. Three sailors lifted the first bomb body with an electric hoist, moving it toward what would soon become an assembly line.

A bomb-building session had begun.

American Navy officers have a line they repeat passionately and often: A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is an imposing and versatile manifestation of the United States’ power. A ship like the Stennis, they say, which was sending aircraft on missions over Iraq one day and over Afghanistan 36 hours later, allows Washington to project influence, unrestricted by borders or basing rights.

To that, Chief Petty Officer Jaime L. Evock, 33, added her own line.

She was watching over the sailors in the red shirts, the uniform that signifies ordnance handlers. They were putting together the parts that allow a carrier and its aircraft to reach inside another country and kill.

Whatever anyone thinks of air power, without munitions and the people who know them, she said, “this ship would just be a floating airport.”

There was something to this. At the end of the long chain of events that puts a carrier near a coastline and Navy strike fighters within range of a ground target, beyond the release point where the aircraft lets go of its ordnance, the final act lies with each missile or bomb descending through the air — which depends on the sailors who assembled it here.

On this night, the red shirts were handling a familiar staple. Each BLU-111 in the stack was a central part of a basic weapon of Western air-to-ground warfare — the general-purpose 500-pound bomb. Each contained 180 pounds of PBXN high explosive within an aerodynamic steel shell.

By itself, though, a bomb body is all but useless. That is where Chief Evock and her team came in: Their task was to carefully attach the components that made them live weapons. Think of a late-night game of Mr. Potato Head on the high seas.

Depending on the particular fins, fuzes and guidance packages that are attached, a BLU-111 can turn into a smart bomb guided by laser or GPS, or any of several kinds of “dumb” bombs, or an undersea mine. The weapon can be configured to penetrate a bunker, or to burrow into the dirt before bursting, thereby reducing the amount of lethal shrapnel and the intensity of the blast wave, to reduce the risk to noncombatants or unwanted damage to property. On this night Chief Evock’s team was filling orders from the carrier’s F/A-18 squadrons for a dozen unguided high-explosive bombs. Between flights to Afghanistan, air crews use these for training runs to maintain their qualifications.

The necessary parts had been carried here from a network of feeder magazines spread through the ship. Petty Officer Second Class Shawn M. Scheffler, 26, walked along the rack of parts as sailors called out lot numbers, compiling what is called a build sheet for each bomb.

For those expecting jangled nerves and beads of sweat as sailors handle explosives, this was the wrong place. Until assembled, released and armed, these bombs are stable. The red shirts worked methodically, with practiced precision and without the dramatic flair seen in “The Hurt Locker,” which covered the handling of explosives of a different sort.

Once the rear fuzes were inserted and set and the fins attached and tightened down, each bomb was ready to be rolled by cart to an elevator that would carry it up to the flight deck. Up there the bombs would be guarded in an area called the bomb farm, waiting to be fitted to aircraft.

The first of the bombs this night were ready in perhaps 10 minutes. Petty Officer First Class Joshua J. Austring, 28, roamed the line, ensuring that the components were tightened to the correct torque.

“Numerous things can go wrong,” he said. “We want to make sure that when the pilots are out there for the Marines, and the Marines ask for something to be dropped, that it is going to work.”

Throughout the process, the petty officers kept records, documenting each step in the assembly; the record sheets will follow each bomb to an aircraft, and through its eventual use.

If a weapon does not function properly, they said, the information on the sheets can be shared with explosive ordnance disposal teams on the ground to help make an unexploded bomb safe. They can also be used to identify mistakes by the red shirts. “If there is a dud, it comes back to me,” Petty Officer Scheffler said.

The sheets are also used when a bomb is flown on a sortie but not dropped; it is returned to this space to be disassembled and all the components accounted for.

Behind Petty Officer Scheffler was the handiwork of previous shifts: bombs to be guided by laser, bombs with GPS antennas in their tails, bombs to explode on impact or in midair.

The Stennis was wrapping up its tour in the Middle East and the Arabian Sea. Soon it would hand off responsibility for providing air support in Afghanistan to another carrier steaming its way.

The red shirts this night did not yet know it, but none of the bombs they assembled would be dropped in Afghanistan, where the use of air-to-ground force has declined as the conditions and tactics on the ground have changed. They would soon be broken back down and the parts checked and stored, and the Stennis’s bow pointed east, toward home.


Direct Link:

Jan 142012


Video Inflames a Delicate Moment for U.S. in Afghanistan

The New York Times
January 12, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan —

A video showing four United States Marines urinating on three dead Taliban fighters provoked anger and condemnation on Thursday in Afghanistan and around the world, raising fears in Washington that the images could incite anti-American sentiment at a particularly delicate moment in the decade-old Afghan war.

A still image from a video posted online that appeared to show Marines urinating on dead bodies.

The Obama administration is struggling to keep the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, on its side as it carefully tries to open talks with the Taliban. Yet the video showing such a desecration — a possible war crime — is likely to weaken the American position with both. The Taliban and Mr. Karzai each pointed to the images as evidence of American brutality, a message with broad appeal in Afghanistan, where word of the video was slowly spreading on Thursday.

Senior military officials in Kabul and at the Pentagon confirmed that the video was authentic and that they had identified the Marines as members of the Third Battalion, Second Marines, which completed a tour of Afghanistan this fall before returning to its base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The officials did not release the Marines’ names but said one wore a corporal’s uniform.

Pentagon officials said the video had been made between March and September 2011, when the Marine battalion was stationed in Helmand Province, a strategic Taliban heartland and a center of the opium poppy trade. The officials said that they did not know the precise location shown in the video but that it had probably been made in the northern part of the province, where the battalion had been operating. Seven of the approximately 1,000 Marines in the battalion were killed during the seven-month deployment.

Pentagon officials said that as far as they knew, all four Marines were still on active duty.

Even before the authenticity of the video had been confirmed, expressions of outrage and contrition by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials left no doubt that they regarded it as real.

Aware of the inflammatory potential, Mr. Panetta telephoned Mr. Karzai to assure him that an investigation was under way and that those responsible would be punished. Mr. Panetta told the Afghan leader that “the conduct depicted in the footage is utterly deplorable, and that it does not reflect the standards or values American troops are sworn to uphold,” said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman.

The video showed the four Marines, in their distinctive sand-colored camouflage, urinating over the three bodies — one covered in blood. One Marine says, “Have a great day, buddy.”

The Taliban initially indicated that the video would not undermine the push toward talks, saying that they saw it as just more evidence of what they said was American brutality and arrogance.

But later on Thursday, in an official statement, the Taliban dropped references to the talks and emphasized the brutality message. “We strongly condemn the inhuman act of wild American soldiers, as ever, and consider this act in contradiction with all human and ethical norms,” the statement said.

Mr. Karzai said that he was deeply disturbed and that he had asked the Americans to punish the perpetrators severely. “This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms,” he said.

American officials reacted remorsefully throughout the day on Thursday in their damage-control effort. The American-led coalition in Afghanistan and the United States Embassy in Kabul offered separate condemnations. Coalition officials said in a statement that the behavior displayed in the video “dishonors the sacrifices and core values of every service member representing the 50 nations of the coalition.”

Mrs. Clinton expressed what she called “total dismay.”

“It is absolutely inconsistent with American values and the standards we expect from our military personnel,” she said in Washington, adding that anyone involved “must be held fully accountable.”

Mr. Panetta said in Washington that he had ordered the Marines and Gen. John R. Allen, a Marine Corps officer who commands coalition forces in Afghanistan, to investigate immediately.

The video, posted on public video-sharing Web sites including LiveLeak and YouTube, began ricocheting around international news Web sites on Wednesday.

Whether the American condemnations will mollify the anger of Afghans remains unclear. But for those who had seen the video, the images appeared to deepen their dislike of the United States, which is widely seen as an occupier here.

“The Taliban sometimes commit such harsh acts, but it was enough just to kill them and not to degrade or humiliate their dead bodies,” said Jawad, a university student in Kabul who gave only one name.

Hajji Ahmad Fareed, a former member of Parliament, said the images confirmed to him that America was against Islam. The Americans “will never be friends with us and never bring peace,” he said. Americans have urinated “on our holy Koran,” he said, and have now done so “on the bodies of our Muslims.”

Mr. Fareed was referring to an erroneous report in Newsweek in 2005 that American soldiers at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had thrown a Koran into a toilet. The report prompted protests and riots in many parts of the Muslim world. The worst was in Afghanistan, where at least 17 people were killed.

Last year, protests erupted in Afghanistan over the burning of a Koran at a Florida church. Several people were killed, including seven United Nations staff members in Mazar-i-Sharif.

American officials in Afghanistan have also struggled to overcome the fallout from a rogue group of American soldiers who in 2010 killed three Afghan civilians for sport in a series of crimes. The soldier accused of being the ringleader of the group, whose members patrolled roads and small villages near Kandahar, was convicted of three counts of murder by an American military panel in November.

The actions of the Marines in the video could amount to a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which require that the bodies of those killed in war be treated honorably.

While the images largely dominated the news in Afghanistan on Thursday, the Taliban’s campaign of assassinations continued when a suicide car bomber killed the governor of a district in the southern province of Kandahar.

The district governor, Said Fazluddin Agha, was riding home after work when his armored vehicle was hit by an attacker in a Suzuki packed with explosives, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. Two of his sons were also killed, and nine police officers and one civilian were wounded. Mr. Agha was the target of an assassination attempt two years ago.

Correction: January 12, 2012

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

Reporting was contributed by Elisabeth Bumiller and John H. Cushman Jr. from Washington; Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul; an employee of The New York Times from Kandahar, Afghanistan; and J. David Goodman from New York.


Direct Link:

Jan 032012

The Next War

Panetta to Offer Strategy for Cutting Military Budget

The New York Times
 January 2, 2012


Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is set this week to reveal his strategy that will guide the Pentagon in cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget, and with it the Obama administration’s vision of the military that the United States needs to meet 21st-century threats, according to senior officials.

Air Force, via European Pressphoto Agency
Reductions are expected in the program for the F-35 fighter jet.

The Next War

Balancing Needs and Costs

This is the third article in a series that is examining the American military and the decisions confronting it in a new age of austerity.


Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Kentucky National Guard troops in Baghdad.

In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.

Instead, he will say that the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to “spoil” a second adversary’s ambitions in another part of the world while conducting a number of other smaller operations, like providing disaster relief or enforcing a no-flight zone.

Pentagon officials, in the meantime, are in final deliberations about potential cuts to virtually every important area of military spending: the nuclear arsenal, warships, combat aircraft, salaries, and retirement and health benefits. With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, Mr. Panetta is weighing how significantly to shrink America’s ground forces.

There is broad agreement on the left, right and center that $450 billion in cuts over a decade — the amount that the White House and Pentagon agreed to last summer — is acceptable. That is about 8 percent of the Pentagon’s base budget. But there is intense debate about an additional $500 billion in cuts that may have to be made if Congress follows through with deeper reductions.

Mr. Panetta and defense hawks say a reduction of $1 trillion, about 17 percent of the Pentagon’s base budget, would be ruinous to national security. Democrats and a few Republicans say that it would be painful but manageable; they add that there were steeper military cuts after the Cold War and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

“Even at a trillion dollars, this is a shallower build-down than any of the last three we’ve done,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw military budgets in the Clinton White House and is now a fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington. “It would still be the world’s most dominant military. We would be in an arms race with ourselves.”

Many who are more worried about cuts, including Mr. Panetta, acknowledge that Pentagon personnel costs are unsustainable and that generous retirement benefits may have to be scaled back to save crucial weapons programs.

“If we allow the current trend to continue,” said Arnold L. Punaro, a consultant on a Pentagon advisory group, the Defense Business Board, who has pushed for changes in the military retirement system, “we’re going to turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist.”

Mr. Panetta will outline the strategy guiding his spending plans at a news conference this week, and the specific cuts — for now, the Pentagon has prepared about $260 billion in cuts for the next five years —  will be detailed in the president’s annual budget submission to Congress, where they will be debated and almost certainly amended before approval. Although the proposals look to budget cuts over a decade, any future president can decide to propose an alternative spending plan to Congress.

The looming cuts inevitably force decisions on the scope and future of the American military. If, say, the Pentagon saves $7 billion over a decade by reducing the number of aircraft carriers to 10 from 11, would there be sufficient forces in the Pacific to counter an increasingly bold China? If the Pentagon saves nearly $150 billion in the next 10 years by shrinking the Army to, say, 483,000 troops from 570,000, would America be prepared for a grinding, lengthy ground war in Asia?

What about saving more than $100 billion in health care cutbacks for working-age military retirees? Would that break a promise to those who risked their lives for the country?

The calculations exclude the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will go down over the next decade. Even after the winding down of the wars and the potential $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade, the Pentagon’s annual budget, now $530 billion, would shrink to $472 billion in 2013, or about the size of the budget in 2007.

It is also important to remember that Mr. Panetta, a former White House budget chief, understands budget politics like few other defense secretaries. When he sent a dire letter to Capitol Hill late last year that held out the prospect of huge reductions in some of Congress’s favorite weapons programs, analysts saw it as a classic tactic to rouse the Hill to his side.

Kin Cheung/Associated Press
The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, anchored in Hong Kong.

The Next War

Balancing Needs and Costs

This is the third article in a series that is examining the American military and the decisions confronting it in a new age of austerity.

They noted that Mr. Panetta did not cite the $100 billion that the previous defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, said could be saved by reducing the number of contractors, cutting overhead, consolidating technology and limiting spending in the executive offices of the Pentagon.

“Talking about business practices doesn’t sound the alarm bells,” said Travis Sharp, a defense budget specialist at the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy research institution.

Here is a look at other areas for reductions:

Military benefits and salaries, although politically difficult to cut, are first in the line of sight of many defense budget analysts. Scaling back the Pentagon’s health care and retirement systems and capping raises would yield hundreds of billions of dollars in projected savings over the next decade.

As it stands now, the Pentagon spends $181 billion each year, nearly a third of its base budget, on military personnel costs: $107 billion for salaries and allowances, $50 billion for health care and $24 billion in retirement pay.

One independent analyst, Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan policy and research group in Washington, has calculated that if military personnel costs continue rising at the rate they have over the past decade, and overall Pentagon spending does not increase, by 2039 the entire defense budget would be consumed by personnel costs.

Most of Washington’s “cut lists” recommend increases in fees for beneficiaries in the Pentagon’s health insurance, Tricare. But the higher fees would affect only working-age retirees and not active-duty personnel, who do not pay for health care.

Other proposals call for capping increases in military salaries, which have had double-digit increases since the Sept. 11 attacks, often because Congress gave the troops raises beyond those requested by the Pentagon.

The chief target for weapons cuts is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one of the most expensive weapons program in history. The Pentagon has plans to spend nearly $400 billion to buy 2,500 of the stealth jets through 2035, but reductions are expected.

The debate centers on how necessary the advanced stealth fighter really is and whether missions could be carried out with the less expensive F-16s. The main advantage of the F-35 is its ability to evade radar systems, making it difficult to shoot down — an attribute that is important only if the United States anticipates a war with another technologically advanced military.

“It would matter some with Iran, it would matter a lot with China,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution and the author of a recent book, “The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity.”

Nowhere is balancing budget and strategy more challenging than in deciding how large a ground combat force the nation needs and can afford. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, the former commander in Iraq, points out that the Army had 480,000 people in uniform before the Sept. 11 attacks, and at that number was supposed to be able to fight two wars at once.

But the Army proved to be too small to sustain the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was increased to its current size of 570,000. The Army is now set to drop to 520,000 soldiers, beginning in 2015, although few expect that to be the floor. The reality is that the United States may not be able to afford waging two wars at once.

“That said, there are certain risks with falling off the two-war posture,” said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a military expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “You may risk losing the confidence of some allies, and you may risk emboldening your adversaries. But at the end of the day, a strategy of bluffing, or asserting that you have a capability that you don’t, is probably the worst posture of all.”

Studies by the Center for a New American Security, the Sustainable Defense Task Force and the Cato Institute, which represent a spectrum of views on defense spending, estimate that the savings from cutting the ground force could range from $41 billion by reducing the Army to 482,400 and the Marine Corps to 175,000 (from its present size of 202,000) all the way up to $387 billion if the Army drops to 360,000 and the Marines to 145,000. The final numbers will make it clear that the United States could not carry out lengthy stability and nation-building efforts, like those ordered for Afghanistan and Iraq, without a huge mobilization of the National Guard and the Reserves.

The size of the military is determined not only to win wars, but also to deter adversaries from starting hostilities. That underpins the American rationale for maintaining a combat presence at overseas bases and for conducting regular air and sea patrols around the globe. With austerity looming, those, too, might be curtailed to save money.

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, advocates saving $69.5 billion over 10 years by reducing by one-third the number of American military personnel stationed in Europe and Asia

“This option would leave plenty of military capability by maintaining strategic air bases and naval ports to provide logistics links,” Mr. Coburn wrote in a report on his budget proposals. Many Congressional budget experts also see ways to save billions of dollars by consolidating Defense Department facilities, schools and installations.

One of the largest expenses the Pentagon faces is to replace its aging strategic nuclear forces. While America’s nuclear warheads are relatively inexpensive to maintain on a day-to-day basis, all three legs of the nuclear triad that deliver the punch — submarines, bombers and ground-based missiles — are reaching the end of their service life at just about the same time.

“The world has changed,” said Stephen W. Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group. “The United States can be more than secure with a far smaller arsenal than what we currently have.”


Direct Link: