Politics & Policy

A Recipe for Military Readiness

All the armed forces need a revamp -- and have for over a decade.

The Army is stressed, Time reports in its April 16, 2007 issue. According to Time:

  • The Air Force and Navy have gotten too much money over the years
  • The services have spent too much on high tech equipment
  • The Army is not good enough at anti-guerilla warfare
  • The Army should be bigger

On one point, Time is undoubtedly correct. The active duty Army should be bigger. On the other points, Time is either simply wrong or has concentrated on debatable operational issues rather than the strategic dilemma America now faces.

The problem with America’s military is not that the Navy and Air Force got too much money (that is not true) or that the services have bought too much high tech equipment (they actually haven’t bought nearly enough). The problem is that all three of the services have been systematically underfunded since the beginning of the Clinton administration. The stress we now see in the Army is the logical and foreseeable result of underfunding by President Clinton throughout the 1990s, an inadequate response by the current administration, and the effects of four years of grinding combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A brief history is warranted. (For more detail, see my article on the military in the March 5, 2007, issue of National Review.) Ronald Reagan understood a fundamental truth: Defense policy is foreign policy, because influence in the world depends on force plus resolution, in addition to a nation’s economic might. So President Reagan increased defense spending by double digits in his first two years in office, reversing the underfunding of the Carter years. The result was a recapitalized military with equipment that used the latest technology. That military was the foundation of America’s successes in the 1980s and ’90s: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the victory in Desert Storm, and the end of genocide in Bosnia.

When Bill Clinton assumed power in 1993, he returned to the policies of the Carter years. He dramatically underfunded our military. During Operation Desert Storm, the active Army had 18 divisions — each with 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers; the Clinton administration cut it to its current size of 10, despite clear, bipartisan warnings from Congress and newly retired Chiefs of Staff that the Army could not carry out the national military strategy on a sustained basis at that level of strength. There were similar cuts in the Air Force and Navy.

Even worse, the Clinton administration did not buy enough equipment even for the reduced force. His administration took a “procurement holiday.” It cut modernization budgets and bought anywhere from 50-90 percent fewer “platforms” — ships, planes, and vehicles — than the military needed to maintain its capital stock. These decisions were driven by short-term budget concerns rather than objective evaluations of military requirements. For example, the administration usually justified cuts in personnel numbers on the grounds that a transformed military needed fewer troops, but then failed to fund the modernization programs that were necessary for transformation.

President Bush has increased military funding, but not enough to make up for the underfunding of the 1990s. After 9/11, the administration should have increased force structure and vastly increased acquisition funding. Instead, this year the government is funding the regular military budget (not counting day-to-day war expenses) at 3.3 percent of GDP, a very low level historically.

The result is a force that, across the board, desperately needs more troops and more modern equipment. The Army is the focus of attention now, and certainly Army training is suffering, though morale, recruiting, and retention are much better than Time suggests. But the larger problem with the Time article is that it judges preparedness in terms of the capabilities needed by one service in the current conflict. The only effective way to prepare a military is the way Reagan did it — by honestly evaluating and funding all the capabilities that will be needed to deal with every substantial threat over the foreseeable future. Had the Clinton administration used that standard, or had the Bush administration promptly and decisively changed course after 9/11, many of our troops would not be on their third or fourth rotation, and they would not have to make ongoing Herculean efforts to sustain a deteriorating fleet of weapon systems and support vehicles.

Clearly a substantial and sustained increase in regular defense funding is vital to the safety of the United States, not just now, but to prepare for future challenges like the rising power of China. Policymakers who say they support a strong military should be judged by whether they support the Heritage Foundation’s “4 percent for Freedom” solution — spending a minimum of 4 percent of the GDP on the regular defense budget over the next decade. That policy would generate, on average, an extra 40 billion dollars per year to increase the size of the Army and Marines and recapitalize the equipment of all three services. The American Enterprise Institute, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Air Force chief of staff are among those who have publicly supported spending at least that much, and I know of no reasonable defense expert who believes we can protect American security with less.

Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow in military affairs at the Heritage Foundation. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993-2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002-2007). He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four years, chairman of the committee’s Seapower Committee.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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