As the cost of operating and maintaining weapons systems increases with age, the Department of Defense (DoD) regularly seeks to recover savings by divesting, or getting rid of, older equipment. DoD argues that it will invest the savings generated in modernization priorities—or “divest to invest.” This year, the Pentagon planned divestments totaling over $2.8 billion. As DoD faces a relatively restricted budget environment and challenges from strategic competitors who are rapidly modernizing and growing their own militaries, it makes sense that the department should pursue tradeoffs to invest in combat capabilities that will secure the high-end deterrent value of the U.S. military. Divesting older platforms requires the United States to accept greater risk by dropping some day-to-day presence, assurance, and deterrence missions that drive demand for U.S. forces around the world. However, recent history suggests that DoD will be unable to shed missions rapidly enough to avoid overburdening the forces that remain after existing platforms are divested, particularly if those divestments continue to outpace replacement programs.
While well-intentioned, “divest to invest” risks increasing wear and tear on an “ever-shrinking” force in the near-term. Instead, DoD should maximize the utility of older weapons systems and resist the temptation to rely on operational tempo reductions that are unlikely to materialize.
The Joint Force is a fraction of the size it was during the Cold War—the last time the United States faced a strategic competitor. As Evan Montgomery summarized earlier this year, “unless the United States scales back commitments or spends enough on defense to enjoy a surplus of power, overstretch is a very real possibility under these conditions.”
But that overstretch is happening now. The Navy’s average number of deployed ships has hovered around 100 for the past three decades, even as the fleet has shrunk. There is no guarantee of future growth to mitigate stress on the fleet due to ongoing budget debates, a strained industrial base, and a lack of short-term replacement options to rapidly recapitalize the Navy as ships retire. The Air Force has similarly struggled with declining numbers of operationally available aircraft across all of its fleets since roughly 2012. Even so, the Air Force’s fighter force investment plans will create further capacity—and capability—gaps before new advanced fighters arrive in the 2030s. The service planned to procure just 304 new aircraft over the next half-decade while retiring 421.
While analysts rightly argue that older platforms cost more to maintain, using fewer platforms to meet an unreduced number of missions also has financial repercussions. The National Commission on Aviation Safety’s 2020 report demonstrates that a high operational tempo for military aviation contributed to noncombatant mishaps costing $11.6 billion since 2013. Beyond mishaps, mission demands inevitably result in declining equipment conditions, only made worse by heavy use. For example, Navy decisions to extend ship deployments previously contributed to maintenance delays across the fleet as vessels required additional work when they reached shipyards. Delayed maintenance for attack submarines alone cost the Navy an estimated $1.5 billion from fiscal year 2008 through 2018.
If divesting to invest is not the solution, then what should the Pentagon do?
First, DoD should not put the cart before the horse—if the Pentagon is all in on divesting old weapons systems, it must make sure that the remaining platforms and forces are not run into the ground trying to perform unchanged mission sets. That means taking an honest look at the U.S. military’s expansive global activities to determine which missions should be cut and which can be performed by older platforms.
For example, while the Navy intended to cut four of the widely critiqued littoral combat ships (LCS) in its FY 2022 budget—with LCS-7 and 9 coming as new decommissioning requests this year—the ships managed to successfully support drug interdiction efforts with high operational availability in U.S. Southern Command. If DoD intends to divest the LCS, it should consider cutting the mission rather than burdening other vessels in the fleet.
Second, DoD must get creative about maximizing the value it can gain from existing platforms. Older weapons systems should be used as proving grounds for new technologies where possible, with the parallel goal of enhancing their survivability. Combatant commanders should work more closely with service capability developers to “adapt current weapons, mission systems, ships and aircraft.” Such efforts should be underpinned by more “evolutionary innovation” to make existing weapons more effective by increasing the speed of upgrades, connectivity, and integration of artificial intelligence tools to support decision-making. Forward-thinking solutions should also consider how platforms might be repurposed for new mission areas, such as using MQ-9 Reapers with technological enhancements to support maritime and littoral domain awareness, or a range of other missions beyond the platform’s traditional use for counterterrorism operations.
DoD will be particularly well served by investing in technology solutions aimed at driving down sustainment costs for the equipment it owns. Operating and support (O&S) costs are roughly 70 percent of the life-cycle costs of weapons systems. The services have explored adopting predictive maintenance tools and analytics for vehicles, ships, and aircraft, and their subsystems in recent years; using data to predict when equipment components will require service or replacement. Widely implementing such solutions now might deliver valuable lessons for improving the cost-effectiveness of maintenance activities in the future for more advanced platforms—including remotely crewed systems—and promote greater multinational collaboration on emerging technologies with military applications in the near-term.
Beyond using new technology to manage sustainment costs for the force, the services must also focus on accelerating the delivery of capability enhancements to improve the combat relevance of existing platforms. The Navy’s software factory “The Forge” is developing ways to more rapidly test and field software upgrades for ships by way of digital twin technologies, and it is preparing to expand on this effort. In another example, the Navy is also in the process of outfitting Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with Block III of the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program, a new electronic countermeasure system, which should be delivered to other classes of ship as soon as possible.
Until the budgetary environment changes or policymakers are willing to cut missions and accept the associated risks, “divest to invest” is a Bad Idea, and the U.S. military needs to work with what it has.