5 BIG Decisions That Will Decide the U.S. Military's Fate

"The United States no longer has the luxury to make the procurement mistakes that it has enjoyed over the past two decades."

Over the next decade, the United States has some enormous decisions to make about the future of its military establishment. The technological and resource advantages that the United States had enjoyed since the end of the Cold War are waning, narrowing the margin of error for the U.S. military.

These decisions go beyond questions of military necessity; they require a level of national deliberation that has become sorely lacking. The post-Cold War glow, followed by the desperate efforts to piece together victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, have made long-range procurement planning difficult, and have put off big decisions that need to happen as part of a national conversation, rather than a technocratic debate between the Pentagon and the services.

Here are five of the biggest decisions that the Pentagon, and by extension the nation, faces over the course of the next decade.

Trident replacement

The United States won’t need to build SSBN (X), the replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, until next decade. However, it does need to decide whether we need a replacement for what analysts regard as the most secure component of the nuclear triad.

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The Ohio-class submarines will begin to reach their retirement dates in 2029. If the United States has not settled on a replacement by that time, the U.S. nuclear deterrent will quickly dwindle. This question goes well beyond U.S. Navy force structure planning; the SSBN force does not normally contribute to any mission other than deterrence. Options currently on the table include a full-fledged SSBN replacement, a modified version of the Virginia class SSN, and… nothing.

None of these options are appetizing. Building new boomers means, quite literally, dumping thousands of tons of national treasure into the deepest part of the ocean. And going without a new boomer has become even less attractive given China’s recent decision to MIRV its nuclear missiles. Modified Virginias are probably the best bet, but present their own problems in escalation scenarios.

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6th Generation fighter

The dust has yet to settle on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Nevertheless, the Navy and the Air Force have both begun to think about what comes next; what might a 6th generation fighter look like?

It’s not unusual to look forward to the next generation of technology, even before the last has run its course. The initial studies that eventually produced the F-22 began in the early 1980s, not that long after the first F-15s and F-16s entered service. But even mentioning the possibility of the XF-36 (or whatever) has potential implications for the status of the F-35. If we can imagine a next-generation fighter, then could we conceivably get by with a small F-35 buy, supplemented by legacy airframes?

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One of the more interesting ideas involves ditching the idea of stealth entirely, and focusing on what amounts to a “battle plane,” a sub-sonic fighter that would manage an array of UAVs and legacy aircraft. Other thoughts have concentrated on supersonic aircraft specialized for air-to-air combat, unlike the F-35. The ability of China and Russia to put fifth-generation fighters into the air undoubtedly should drive U.S. interest in taking the next step.

New infantry vehicle

The United States has been trying to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle for almost four decades. At first, the U.S. Army hoped to build a successor more capable of surviving on the Central Front in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict. More recently, it has sought vehicle that could more ably fit into a networked family of ground military vehicles, and later that could fit more comfortably into low intensity military operations.

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The question goes deeper than the technical minutiae of the new system; indeed, how the Army decides to replace the Bradley has implications for the future of the service. Vehicles more capable than the Bradley (as were studied during the Cold War, and in recent years) would run the risk of becoming so heavy that they can’t deploy. Vehicles lighter than the Bradley lack survivability even in low-intensity combat environments.