President Barack Obama will unveil his 2010 budget on Thursday, and the military expects big cuts to their spending plans. How big? The Navy was hoping for as much as $26 billion a year to build ships, and will probably get only $14 billion. The Air Force is desperate for 60 more F-22 fighters at a cost of nearly $10 billion, and the only way they’ll get them is with
commiserate commensurate cuts to other programs. The Army is bracing itself for a major slash to its pet project, the $160-billion Future Combat Systems family of technologies.
“A reduction in defense spending this year would unnerve American allies,” pundit Robert Kagan warned. “What worries allies cheers and emboldens potential adversaries.”
But huge increases in military spending under George W. Bush didn’t improve our defenses, analyst Winslow Wheeler reminds us:
America’s defense budget is now larger in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any point since the end of World War II. However, our Army has fewer combat divisions than at any point in that period, our Navy has fewer combat ships and the Air Force has fewer combat aircraft. …
The evidence, while counter-intuitive, is irrefutable that more money makes our problems worse. As the Army, Navy and Air Force budgets have climbed, their forces have grown smaller, older and less ready.
Wheeler contends, and I agree, that the Pentagon needs a heavy dose of imposed discipline by way of deep budget cuts, and renewed emphasis on proper accounting, Congressional oversight and sound business practices. We can’t continue to paper over military waste by injecting more money into a failed system. If we keep spending the way we have in recent years, we’ll spend ourselves into ruin.
But don’t worry: even if we sliced a quarter off our roughly $500-billion defense budget for last year (not counting war costs), we’d still spend more than most nations combined. With those resources, plus a little bit of common sense and technological appetite-suppression, we could maintain the world’s most powerful armed forces, by a large margin. What I’m proposing is not the end of U.S. military supremacy, but vital reforms for preserving U.S. military supremacy.
Consider: today the U.S. Navy enjoys a more than 10-navy standard in most categories, including tonnage, missile firepower and aviation capability. In other words, we field more forces than the next 10 most-powerful navies combined. This is easily the widest margin of naval superiority in the history of the world. With that much superiority as a buffer, we have adequate space and time to make the painful reforms we must make to ensure we continue to dominate, not just for the next year or two, but for decades to come.
So cut the Pentagon budget, Obama, and cut deep. And defense planners: with the hundreds of billions you’re left with, take a fresh look at our needs, and our options, and make wise decisions on our behalf. Don’t fear the budgetary axe. Welcome it, as it slices away the dead wood of decades of accumulated mismanagement.
Update, 2/26/09: We’re already beginning to see the benefits of budget cuts. The Army has announced it will probably eliminate half of the Future Combat Systems’ manned vehicle designs. Likely targets include the Mounted Combat System, which was meant to replace the battle-proven M-1 heavy tank, but is too light to survive modern threats. The Army will use a wide range of very capable, existing designs to replace the killed FCS vehicles. Buying more M-1s, Strykers and upgraded M-113s will save money and result in a more capable force.
(Photo: Kevin Lampinen)