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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Pivot to the Pacific: What are the Practical and Global Implications?"


On Scene Report Day One  -  January 29, 2013

Adm. James A. Winnefeld, Jr., Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opened the WEST 2013 convention in San Diego on Tuesday with a sober assessment on the limits of American military power should sequestration become a reality and the Pentagon is forced to cut an additional $500 billion from its budget over the next 10 years.

“We’ll only be able to cover the conflicts we are in and respond to the highest of the high national security interests,” Winnefeld said. “There could be for the first time in my career instances where we may be asked to respond to a crisis and we will have to say that we cannot.”

The military, Winnefeld added, “is in serious risk of rapidly sliding into a hollow force.”

“Our budget challenges are going to present very serious challenges to readiness,” he added.

The Pentagon already is looking to cut $497 billion over the next ten years. Add $500 billion on top of that through sequestration, and the cuts could be devastating.

Sequestration, part of a compromise spending bill reached by Congress and the White House nearly two years ago, was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1 when the nation faced the so-called “fiscal cliff” of across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts. A tax deal was reached, and sequestration was delayed for two months as part of that bargain.

But time is running out for Congress to again address the military’s biggest domestic concern, and sequestration dominated the opening day of WEST 2013, co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute.

“We don’t have a lot of money; now we have to think,” quipped Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work during his luncheon address.

“There are no easy solutions for us to deal with,” said Vice Adm. John T. Blake, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, during a panel discussion following Winnefeld’s remarks.

“I know of know other time that we have come down this far this fast in the defense budget,” Winnefeld said on Tuesday. “Our world is about to change. We’re going to have less money.”

Making government and industry officials especially anxious is that no one knows at this point what the numbers or rules ultimately will be. “All of you would agree that this is no way to run a business,” Winnefeld told the audience.

Said Winnefeld: “We have to find more commonalities across missions and across services if we can.” 

Winnefeld said further savings could come through the “potential cancellation of maintenance capabilities for ships,” a number he said could reach 30 this year. Furloughs “that would affect the vast majority of our 800,000 DOD civilians” are expected, and a hiring freeze is possible.

Again, however, if sequestration goes into effect, that would cover just one-ninth of the further savings needed. Winnefeld called it a $5-billion fix to a $46 billion problem.”

Winnefeld said private industry must play a critical role in cutting costs. Winning bidders for various contracts “will not only hold the line on costs, but attack it.”

The Admiral said technological advances can help make up some of the difference. “There’s plenty of room for innovation in the Navy and Marine Corps across the board.”

Innovation should focus not just on cost savings, but on bolstering the security of how weapons systems are run. “Nearly everything we do today has become so comfortably dependent on a vast system of networks,” networks that are reliant on communications, satellites and precision navigation.

“We have gotten very good,” Winnefeld said, “at something that is very fragile. Let there be no doubt that anyone more sophisticated than a terrorist will understand that they need to try to take those things away from us if they’re going to win a fight.”

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The topic of affordability continued in earnest during a morning panel discussion entitled, “The Budget Clock is Ticking: What Does it Mean?”

Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, had a ready answer: “If the clock is ticking, that means the bomb is about to go off,” she said.

Schake said military planners need to accept the fact that the United States will be looking at “dramatic reductions in defense spending…over a pretty substantial period of time,” a period of time she suggested could last a decade if not longer. Making the challenge more difficult, she said, is that “we have raised a generation of military leaders who have never operated in a period of austerity.”

Treading into a sensitive area with military leaders, Schake said Congress and the Pentagon need to take a hard look at rising personnel costs. “We have an unaffordable all-volunteer force. We cannot continue to have the force that we have.”

The New York Times reported that a private first class with a family and three years’ experience deployed to a war zone takes home $36,000 today, compared to 

$26,700 tax-free in 2001. That, The Times pointed out, is an 11 percent raise over inflation. Meanwhile, a lieutenant colonel with a family and 20 years of experience deployed to the same war zone will take home $120,000, compared to $84,000 tax-free in 2001.

The Hoover Institution research fellow said the military also needs to look at trimming benefit packages, including retirement programs and medical coverage, “or we’re going to run an entitlement program that occasionally kills a terrorist.” Because Congress would be loathe to suggest such cutbacks

due to the potential political fallout, Schake said it is incumbent that military leaders take the initiative on the matter.

“Unless we do this we are going to have a well-paid Navy that doesn’t have ships to sail.”

Schake said other cost-cutting suggestions need to be weighed against potential risk, “and where I would be willing to accept risk is in (reducing) the size of our ground forces,” particularly the Army. Another risk worth taking is in reducing the training of foreign forces, forces that in the case of Mali are now using American weapons and training against American interests.

Vice Adm. Blake didn’t go as far as Schake, but he noted shaping a military budget during these uncertain fiscal times will be harder than some expect. “There are no easy solutions for us to deal with,” he said. “There is no low-hanging fruit.”

Retired Rear Adm. Tony Lengerich said cutting maintenance to save dollars may not be a wise move, as the expected life of the affected equipment would be lessened.

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Lunchtime Address

During his luncheon keynote speech, Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work addressed the theme of convention, Pivot to the Pacific, and said America’s focus

on Asia and the Pacific should be made less challenging because of a general cooperative spirit among most of the affected nations.

“Everyone is invested in the global system of maritime commerce,” he said, noting the unprecedented cooperation between the U.S. and other navies. Of the 19 navies behind the United States’ in size, their countries are either “treaty allies or strategic partners.”

He said the country is not on a “collision course” with China, and he cited the country’s ties to India, which he said “will be a bulwark in the Indian Ocean.”

“Asia has seen a decline in interstate conflict,” he said.

As he did during his address at WEST 2012 last January, Work noted that despite the current fiscal climate in Washington, “We produce a world-class product…the finest expeditionary force in history.” He also said that “for the first time in a long time, perhaps longer than any of us can remember, all of the ships authorized in the prior fiscal year are under contract.”

He said the biggest question he has is whether the budget cutting will mean less money to “reset” the equipment that is coming back from war. He noted that during the 284 months from when the Cold War ended on May 13, 1989, through Dec. 31, 2012, the United States was at war 145 months.

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The final panel discussion of the day was entitled The Fiscal Cliff: How Do You Make It Add Up? and it also focused on budget paralysis in Washington and Congress’s seemingly inability to work things out.

Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan, Jr., commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, noted the current budget constraints didn’t happen overnight and he said he has done what he can to plan for it.

“We’ve looked at it and we’ve done some preparations,” he said. A majority of the equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan is home or on its way back home, and much of it is being “re-fit” with other peoples’ funds.

He said among his biggest concerns is unit readiness, and he asked if the U.S. would be ready to deploy in a crisis. “That’s going to be a serious problem” under the current fiscal climate.

Perhaps responding to the suggestion from Kori Schake at the HooverInstitution that pay and benefits need to be examined, Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman III, commander of Naval Surface Forces, said they should “absolutely be locked in” for active duty Marines and sailors.

Toolan agreed. He said savings can come from cutting the size of the Marine force. “What is the force we can afford?” he asked.

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Event Photos: Flickr West 2013


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