The Measure of Affordability

June 1, 1991

The Air Force cannot afford the Advanced Tactical Fighter program, the Congressional Budget Office told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee April 22. To pay for a full complement of these aircraft, the tactical air forces would have to sacrifice another 10–or perhaps another 14–wings from the reduced number already planned, CBO said.

In 1990, the Air Force fielded 36 fighter wings. It is scheduled to have 26 left in 1995. Eventually, a fourth of them are supposed to be equipped with the ATF air-superiority fighter.

According to CBO, buying the ATF would drop the affordable total to 16 wings, and given “less favorable assumptions” about budgets and program cost, the force could further shrink to 12 wings. CBO proposed that Congress consider several alternatives, including a “silver bullet force,” in which “a very few” ATFs would be supplemented by low-cost multirole fighters.

The Air Force says that CBO’s method was faulty and its conclusions wrong, but, as usual, the prospect of cuts in a defense program drew a crowd of speculators anxious to see what they could make of it. CBO does not attackthe requirement fortheATF. In fact, it acknowledges a strong case for the new fighter. The concern, it says, is affordability.

Undoubtedly so. Federal outlays in 1991 will equal 24.9 percent of the Gross National Product, the highest in almost fifty years. The government will collect 19.4 percent of GNP in revenues. The deficit is forecast at $308 billion. Even optimists do not believe it can be brought to heel by 1995.

There has been a redistribution of spending, not a reduction of It, and as the competition for available funding intensifies, we ought to get a few points straight about affordability.

Defense, which went down steadily while the deficit was going up, did not cause the deficit and is not perpetuating it. The trend lines finally crossed, and the deficit is now larger than the defense budget.

Adjusted for inflation, defense spending in 1995 will be 34 percent lower than in 1985. Air Force pu rchasing power takes an especially heavy hit, declining by about. 45 percent over the 10-year period.

Over the next five years, the armed forces will lose ships, divisions, air wings, and about 500,000 active-duty troops. The Air Force of 1995 will count itself lucky to field a strategic bomber fleet of 181 airplanes. By 1996, the defense program will account for 3.6 percent of GNP, the lowest level since 1939.

Incredibly, the myth persists that the Pentagon budget is lavish, growing, driving the deficit, and robbing resources from domestic and social programs. As with the ATF, we can expect every high-visibility defense program to be challenged on “affordability.” Oddly, the question is almost never applied to nondefense programs, even those that paced the rise of the deficit.

CBO, in its January 1991 Economic and Budget Outlook, notes that defense’s declining share of GNP indicates only “the relative burden” of spending. In the context of a rising GNP and the overall pattern of federal outlays, these percentages also tell us a great deal about priorities and affordability.

Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that CBO’s findings on the ATF were correct. Does this mean that fielding a new air-superiority fighter almost 30 years after its predecessor went into service would wreck the economy

Does it mean that after a decade of progressive reductions to the defense budget, massive cuts in personnel and force structure, cancellation and curtailment of weapon systems, withdrawals from overseas, base closures, and other such adjustments, the United States will be unable to scrape together enough money to pay for what’s left of the defense program

The nation may not want to spend more than 3.6 percent of GNP on defense, but to claim it cannot afford to do so is absurd.