DOD budget reflects impact of cyber, unmanned systems, R&D

The 2015 spending plan cuts back in expected areas, but also shows how the Pentagon's focus is shifting.

This story has been updated from its original form.

The proposed 2015 Defense budget — the first request in 13 years not based on U.S. forces being involved in a foreign war — paints a picture of the military moving toward fewer soldiers, reduced spending and a greater reliance on technology.

The $495.6 billion budget request, released Tuesday with the rest of the federal budget, accounts for a reduction in the Army’s troop strength from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000, along with reductions in the Reserve and National Guard.

While the Pentagon is bringing those troop levels to their lowest since the beginning of World War II — and they could go lower still in 2016 is sequester cutbacks kick in — military leaders are focusing on technology.

A key area, albeit a relatively small portion of the defense budget, is in cyber defense and cybersecurity. Troop levels may be on the way down, but the size cyber forces are on the way up, as is cyber spending, which had already more than doubled in 2014 from 2013, and would go to $5.1 billion in 2015. The U.S. Cyber Command is in the process of increasing its personnel  from 900 at the beginning of 2013 to 4,900 by 2016. At the service’s component cyber commands, the Army will add 660, the Navy 1,000, the Air Force 2,000 and the Marines about 700 over the same time frame.

And while the budget document released Tuesday doesn’t get into specifics about robotics and unmanned systems, that clearly is an area where DOD is putting its money. The department recently released a 25-year Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap that outlines plans for smart, networked unmanned systems on land, air and sea. Whether airborne drones, robotic trucks  or unmanned underwater minehunters, DOD has plenty of uses for automated systems, particularly as troop levels decline.

One victim of the new focus on unmanned systems is the venerable U-2 spy plane, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagen, in previewing the budget last week, said would be replaced in favor of greater use of Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. The U-2 has been in service since 1955 and was the primary high-altitude U.S. spy plane during the Cold War. But the Global Hawk provides greater range and duration, is becoming more cost-efficient and makes for a better high-altitude surveillance platform for the future, Hagel said.

The U-2 isn’t the only aircraft being put out to pasture or reduced in numbers; the Air Force also is retiring its A-10 warthog aircraft and reducing the size of its C-130 fleet, while the Navy will move ahead with the purchase of only 32 Littoral Combat Ship rather than the 52 ships that had been proposed.

A reliance on technology, of course, creates a need to develop new technologies, and DOD will continue to invest in science and technology programs. The budget allocates $11.5 billion for basic and applied research and development of advanced technology. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, incubator of much of DOD’s cutting-edge tech, will get $2.9 billion, the same as in 2014.

In a time of tight budgets, DOD also aim to get the most out of its energy consumption, which makes up about three quarters of all the power used by the federal government. Among its investments are nearly $1.2 billion in third-party-financed contracts for better energy efficiency.

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