By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the U.S. military grappled with budget cuts over the past year, one thing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made clear was the Pentagon must avoid reductions in training and maintenance that would lower the force's readiness to fight.
But a report released by a Washington think tank on Tuesday challenged that assumption, concluding that a short-term cut in readiness funding could free up cash to develop weapons and equipment needed to be ready in the future.
Several teams of defense experts brought together by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments to re-envision U.S. defense strategy in a time of tight budgets concluded that a short-term reduction in readiness spending could be done with little risk.
"These teams reasoned that, 'well, we're coming out of a decade of war and frankly our force is very ready," said CSBA fellow Mark Gunzinger, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired Air Force colonel who helped lead the exercise.
Rather than spending to maintain a high state of readiness, the teams reasoned they could reduce readiness spending and invest that money in "modernization programs which will help us be a better prepared force in the future," Gunzinger said.
The finding was one of several made when the CSBA assembled seven teams of defense experts this summer to look at how the Pentagon should address the likelihood of additional budget cuts in the coming years.
The report released on Tuesday is one of a series produced by think tanks following the U.S. elections as Congress returns to Washington looking for ways to avert massive across-the-board spending cuts due to hit defense and other federal programs in early January.
President Barack Obama and Congress agreed last year to cut projected national security spending by $487 billion over the next decade. The Pentagon faces another $500 billion in across-the-board cuts beginning in January unless Congress can agree over the next month on an alternative.
But even if Congress is able to reach a deal to avoid the automatic spending cuts - a process known as sequestration - there is a growing realization in Washington that the Pentagon is likely to face more reductions, possibly as much as the $500 billion envisioned under sequestration.
Panetta has warned that a new round of defense cuts would force the Pentagon to go back to the drawing board and redesign the military strategy adopted earlier this year.
The CSBA exercise asked seven teams of defense experts - including Pentagon civilians, congressional aides and think tank scholars - to do exactly that: to re-envision the strategy approved in January assuming defense spending will be cut by another $519 billion, the amount likely under sequestration.
CSBA scholar Todd Harrison, who also worked on the project, said the most successful team, as recognized by the participants, was the one that looked at what kind of military the United States would need in 20 years and then worked backwards to decide how to achieve that goal.
Harrison said the teams generally agreed with the new U.S. military strategy, which calls for a shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region. But several thought the Pentagon did not have the right mix of ships, aircraft, weapons and equipment to carry out the strategy, he said.
Many potential U.S. adversaries, like China or Iran, are developing missiles and other weapons aimed at preventing U.S. planes and warships from operating against them at close range. To counter that threat, the United States needs systems that can operate at longer ranges.
To fund development of those systems, some teams called for deep cuts in active duty ground forces, steep reductions in civilian defense personnel and reductions in readiness funding. Most called for reductions in the purchase of F-35 strike fighters, the Pentagon's costliest weapons system.
A majority of the teams emphasized four critical capabilities for the future: special operations forces, cyberspace assets, long-range strike bombers and unmanned aircraft and more submarine and unmanned undersea vehicles.
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Vicki Allen)