As Good as Our Next War

June 1, 2002
According to Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, we are “running the risk of spending too much on defense.” President Bush’s military pay hike is “excessive,” the analyst says. His proposed weapon purchases are “greatly excessive.” In these and other ways, claims O’Hanlon, the Bush plan “puts the nation’s fiscal health and domestic agenda at risk.”

And among critics, O’Hanlon is a moderate. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) would simply cancel weapons such as the stealthy F-22. “Who are we hiding it from?” he demands to know. “The Taliban?”

The New York Times claims DOD is on a “spending spree.” The Los Angeles Times laments an “orgy” of defense spending. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that the Pentagon shells out “$722,222 every minute; blink your eyes for a second, and $12,037 disappears.”

O’Hanlon, Frank, and the pundits aren’t alone. The image of the Pentagon as a ravenous force is widespread in political and media circles. To O’Hanlon, “Bush has gone from compassionate conservative to Ronald Reagan reincarnate.”

This is nonsense, as official records show. Bush on Feb. 4 unveiled a $379 billion budget for Fiscal 2003 and announced budgets for four ensuing years. If he gets every penny he seeks, defense spending will average about $390 billion a year. Under Reagan, it was about $430 billion a year. That’s a huge difference.

In the key category of procurement, Bush-Reagan comparisons are even less credible. Bush wants to buy weapons at the rate of $78 billion a year. The Reagan average: $120 billion a year.

Under Reagan, defense consumed about six percent of Gross Domestic Product. Now, it’s 3.3 percent. The US spent 5.5 percent of GDP on defense as recently as 1990, so Bush-level expenditures are well within reason.

No question, the US spends a great deal on defense. It’s expensive to buy and maintain modern, effective fighting forces–professional, well-trained, with top-notch weapons, able to fight globally and to prevail relatively quickly.

With the US in a battle with terrorists and with war in Iraq a possibility, public support for defense has held strong, so far.

If the record of the past is a guide, however, the steady blast of press and political criticism will eventually take its toll on public support for the Pentagon. When this happens, the armed forces will still face a long list of unfixed problems.

Even after Bush raised the budget, the services were left with unfunded priorities this year totaling more than $25 billion. The Air Force amount is $3.8 billion, and this does not include the unbudgeted $4.2 billion bill for mobilizing reservists.

In procurement, DOD lacks the money to properly modernize and recapitalize the services. The Bush budget does nothing to reduce the average age of the fighter fleet, which, according to Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, is 22 years and rising.

Navy shipbuilding is on a downward slope. So is Army aviation. USAF has a desperate need to modernize its aging tankers, but it can’t afford to buy them quickly and may have to lease them, instead.

A study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and services said DOD must spend about $110 billion a year for several years to recapitalize the force. The Bush plan never exceeds $92 billion.

Older systems cost more to maintain, so the problem mutates into various forms. Gen. Richard B. Myers, JCS Chairman, said that the F-15 fighter (average age: 17.5 years) in recent years experienced an 83 percent rise in cost per flying hour and a drop from 81 to 77 percent in mission capable rates.

There is no money to add people to the overstretched services. USAF needs 7,000 more airmen, at least. “We will not be able to continue to do our job with the numbers we have now,” said Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff.

Perversely, the crunch has created an illusion that the problem stems from the size of the program. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is considering cutting weapons in hopes of fitting the program within planned 2004-09 budgets. The F-22 Raptor, USAF’s No. 1 modernization priority, is among the systems being re-examined.

The problem, however, is not a large program but a relatively small budget. The drawdown of the 1990s cut forces too deeply. The services are still trying to recover. Roche says, “It will take more than 10 years to overcome the 10-year procurement holiday” at the Pentagon.

US forces are still immensely strong. They have proven themselves in battle from the Gulf to Bosnia, from Kosovo to Afghanistan. However, complacency can be lethal. Improvement must be continuous. As a senior Air Force officer puts it, “We are only as good as our next war.”

The next war could come sooner than anyone thinks. Dire and unconventional threats obviously exist, and we are in a fight for our lives. Today’s forces–those that did the job in Afghanistan–stem mostly from investments made in the 1970s and 1980s. Tomorrow’s forces will result from investment decisions made today.

The money must be spent wisely. However, given the stakes, the danger of “spending too much on defense” shouldn’t appear at the top of anybody’s national worry list.