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Playing Defense

Cutting military spending is politically unpopular, but more dollars don’t make a better Army.

Until last summer, just about everyone on Wall Street was dismissing the indicators of coming financial collapse. Similarly, no one in the lobbyist-infested halls of Congress and the Pentagon wants to see the signposts of our impending defense meltdown. But consider four ugly facts:

  • Defense is being showered with more dollars today than at any time since the end of World War II.

  • The forces the Pentagon has been buying with those growing dollars have been shrinking steadily since 1946.

  • These shrinking forces are more and more antiquated: the average age of our aircraft, ships, and tanks has been increasing relentlessly since the ’50s.

  • Despite all the extra money, training is shrinking, too. Key combat units are being sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with less and less training.

How did the Bush administration deal with these uncomfortable truths? On their way out of town, they left a five-year plan that exacerbates each of the four harbingers. Re-appointed by Obama and now stuck with that plan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates needs to decide if he wants to be Bush’s holdover or morph into Barack Obama’s new broom, bringing change to bad old Pentagon ideas, some of them his own. 

In his farewell article in last fall’s Foreign Affairs and in his welcome-back testimony to the House and Senate in January, Gates decried a defense budget riddled with “baroque” and irrelevant weapons at unaffordable cost. He warned, “the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing.”

This is important, perhaps prophetic, rhetoric. But if, like Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance,” Gates’s ringing words remain untainted by action, they will simply mask festering problems. If, on the other hand, he decides to act, his first task must be to control the root of the evil, the money.

To understand, we need only to look at what we’ve spent and the forces those dollars have bought. According to Defense Department budget plans and records, at over $670 billion for 2009, we will be spending more on the Pentagon than at any point since 1946. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the Pentagon budget is higher today than at its peaks for either Korea or Vietnam—though both of those were far larger than our current wars.

This significantly expanded budget only buys us dramatically shriveled forces. The major combat units that make up our Army, Navy, and Air Force are at their lowest ebb since 1946.

Specifically, at just over ten Army division equivalents, we have the smallest combat Army in the last 60 years, at the highest budget since the end of World War II. For past modern conflicts, there were major Army expansions, but for Iraq and Afghanistan, a very modest plan to add 60,000 soldiers for new combat formations has not even begun to show up in Army records, though the $100+ billion cost has.

Similarly, we now have a smaller Navy, under 300 combat ships, than at any point since 1946, but the Navy’s budget is now above the historic norm for the post-World War II era. In the same way, the number of wings of fighters and tactical bombers in the Air Force has collapsed from 61 in 1957 to just ten today. The budget? Also well above the historic norm.

The five-year plan Gates dropped on Obama’s doorstep continues this shrinkage, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leaving us with key weapons that are older and scarcer than ever.

Symptoms of our unpreparedness abound: tank drivers get fewer training miles today than they did during the readiness-cutting Clinton administration. Fighter pilots get fewer training hours in the air than during the hollow defense years of the Carter administration. And the latest public readiness ratings reveal that not one major Army combat unit in the U.S. was rated fully ready to go to war—not even the ones sent to battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More money has not solved these problems. Quite the contrary: it enables the Pentagon and the Congress to make them worse. Beyond the extra $800 billion appropriated since 2001 ostensibly to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the non-war Pentagon budget has been showered with an additional $750 billion. That money was squandered by a defense acquisition system that sheds the feeble reforms of witless Pentagon officials like a Labrador shakes off water. Squandering at least as much, Congressmen heaved billions more in pork, pandering to the hordes of defense contractors seeking handouts.   

A classic example of how more money leads to force decay is our Air Force, now in the final stages of spending $65 billion for the F-22 fighter aircraft. All that money bought a disgracefully puny inventory of 184 at an unconscionable $355 million per fighter—about three times the price initially promised. These will replace less than half of the 450 F-15 fighters now in the Air Force and obviously cannot reverse the aging of the fleet. 

But isn’t the F-22 a vastly superior fighter? Won’t all that hyper-expensive technology offset the small numbers? No. The F-22’s widely advertised prowess depends on a fantasy concocted by high-tech big spenders shortly after the Korean War: “beyond visual range” air combat. The plan was to identify the enemy as a blip on the radar, lock on with a 15-mile radar missile, fire, and watch the blip disappear. The ugly reality is that every time we’ve tried that, from Vietnam to Iraq, with more than a handful of friendly and enemy fighters in the air the “identify the enemy blip” part fails and we wind up shooting at friends. The engagement rules have to be changed to “eyeball identification required,” and we’re back to hard maneuvering dogfights.

The F-22 is the distillation of that failed dream. The huge weight, drag, and complexity burden of its stealth-compromised skin, big-ticket radar, and belly-fattening radar missile load have swollen it to bomber size, wrecked its maneuvering performance, and run its cost through the roof. The radar is useless because turning it on makes the F-22 an instant target. The stealth fails against World War II-technology search radars and against enemy fighters savvy enough to turn off their radars. The F-22’s vaunted effectiveness is based only on peacetime exercises using rigged ground rules and missile lethality numbers unrelated to actual combat results or real enemy countermeasures. Even more telling is the number of combat sorties the F-22 has flown to help the fights in Iraq or Afghanistan since going operational in 2006: zero. 

And how do the Pentagon and Congress deal with the crushing cost and ineffectiveness of the F-22? In Bush’s Pentagon last year, Gates found the pros and cons of spending yet more on the F-22 to be such a “close call” that he punted the decision to the new secretary of defense. Now in receipt of his own punt, Gates is huddling with Obama’s “new” Pentagon team (mainly retreaded Clintonites) cogitating over the fate of the F-22. 

Insiders say that they’re coming up with a classic compromise guaranteed to make everything worse: buy a few more F-22s now and pay for them by “saving” money out of the clearly unraveling F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-35, still in its early stages, is headed for major cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance calamities, perhaps even surpassing the F-22 mess. 

But will the new Gates team really save money in the F-35 program? Not a chance. The business-as-usual plan doesn’t terminate the F-35, which would save serious money; it just delays production. That allows temporary transfer of the money needed now to keep the F-22 slurping at the public trough and kicks the can down the road for the F-35.  The stretch-out only makes the F-35 more expensive, which in turn further reduces the force size—all to keep alive a deeply flawed, unfixable design.

Multiply this approach by the thousands of hardware programs then raid the personnel, maintenance, and training accounts to pay for the hardware overruns and presto: you get our shrinking, aging, less ready to fight defense forces.

And how do they react in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon? Send more money.

Civilian and military politicians learned from their experience with Clinton that Democrats can be cowed by labeling them “anti-defense” if they dare to deny the Pentagon anything. The military services, contractors, and their media propagandists hammered away at Clinton until he coughed up annual budgets well in excess of what Bush 41 and his secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, planned for the 1990s. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress larded those bloated Clinton budget requests with add-on appropriations. Uninterested in spending on battlefield necessities for the troops such as training, maintenance, ammunition, body armor, and the like, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress piled on pricey items like the F-22. Come 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our grunts were painfully short of what they needed most in real war—and paid the price in blood.

Now we are seeing exactly the same games—and the same game players—being trotted out to force Obama to run up the defense budget. Here are a few of the gambits:

The Add-Fat-Before-Cutting Scheme: Last summer, Secretary Gates and the Pentagon conjured up a preemptive fattening of the budget they were handing to the next president, adding a $60 billion nest egg. In February 2009, Obama’s Office of Management and Budget blocked the play and restored the pumped-up 2010 Pentagon budget to its original figure, a not inconsiderable $527 billion, a $12 billion increase over 2009. Not surprisingly, the big spenders are calling this an Obama defense budget “cut.” 

The Prime-the-Pump Scheme: Like Wall Street and its economist spinmeisters, the defense contractors and their Pentagon allies are jumping on the stimulus bandwagon, asking for $30 billion. Of course, DOD spending generates jobs. Unfortunately, it does so more slowly, less efficiently, and with much more overhead than other government spending—or even tax cuts. We’d be hard-pressed to come up with a worse way of stimulating the economy than pouring extra dollars into outrageously expensive Pentagon programs already in trouble.

The Unforeseen-Emergency Scheme: The Gates Pentagon has yet to submit its money plan for war spending, as opposed to its plan for “normal” Pentagon spending, for the rest of 2009 and for 2010. Since the Vietnam War, these “emergency supplementals” have been hiding holes for superfluous spending unrelated to the wars, stuffed in by both the Pentagon and Congress. Will the Obama administration bring “change” to the hidden abuse of war funding? 

The Unapproved-Wish-List Scheme: Each year for the last 15 or so, the military services have sent Congress a list of spending programs euphemistically called “unfunded requirements,” amounting to tens of billions of dollars. None of these additional billions are reviewed by a secretary of defense or a president. They constitute an end-run by the military services for unapproved spending, with Congress acting as a willing enabler. It would be a sign that the spigot overflow of 9/11 is indeed drying up if Gates puts an end to this flouting of his and the president’s authority.

The unending proliferation of such schemes has rotted America’s defenses to the core. We’ve had 45 years of reform initiatives, and each has fizzled. We’ll know that the Obama administration has snipped this unbroken string of failures when Secretary Gates translates his rhetoric into actions that change the money flow. And there’s no better place to start than by axing a few of these Pentagon budget-busters—his own included.  


Winslow T. Wheeler is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Pierre M. Sprey was a major participant in the formulation of the F-16 and the A-10. Both contributed chapters to the recently released book America’s Defense Meltdown.

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