Magazine May 4, 2009, Issue

Budget Defense

President Obama proposes to spend dangerously little on the military

By any measure, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has had a long honeymoon, but it may be coming to an end. The new Pentagon budget was released on Monday of Easter Week, when Congress was dispersed about the country for the recess. Gates may have deftly dodged the bullet of congressional indignation for the moment, but he has good reasons to worry. This is a “transformation” budget like its Rumsfeld-era predecessors, and like all reforms, it will anger vested interests. But as Max Boot points out, it is also an austerity budget, which means that it will anger lots of vested interests — especially given the lack of any restraint in domestic spending under Obama.

Some cuts probably are a good idea. A prime candidate is the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS), a network of vehicles, weapons, surveillance, and communications designed to ensure that our infantry units continue to dominate their tactical “battlespace” for years to come. Prominent critics of Rumsfeld’s transformation, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Fred Kagan, have argued that too much investment in network-centric capabilities, especially as a substitute for boots on the ground, carries the risk of making war merely a “targeting drill” disconnected from the ultimate political objectives of the campaign. Secretary Gates has a related criticism of the FCS, namely that if such systems can’t prove their adaptability and relevance in today’s wars, they should not be prioritized over systems that can — for example, the cheaper and highly successful Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected vehicle.

Armies have a famous bad habit of investing too much in the capabilities of the last war, but for Gates, the Pentagon’s problem is too much focus on the next one. “The kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead,” he cautioned in May 2008, “will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.” That was code for “irregular warfare” such as in Iraq and Afghanistan — and bad news for the F-22 Raptor, the exotic high-performance fighter dreamed up in the 1980s to establish air superiority over high-performance Soviet planes that were never built. The F-22 is peerless to a fault. Gates decided to cap them at 187 planes, far fewer than originally planned, instead offering the air chiefs lots of cheaper, multi-purpose F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. In the end, the chiefs agreed — although whether they will obey his prohibition against “guerrilla warfare” lobbying with Congress back in town remains to be seen.

The decision to purchase a third Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) — basically a futuristic, small, fast, stealthy platform that can be configured for a wide variety of missions and can operate very close to shore — is just one example of the priority given to irregular warfare in the current budget. Gates was emphatic that the U.S. has to have the LCS, and the Navy will eventually get 55 of them. Gates also highlighted big increases in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), surveillance technology, helicopter capacity, and special forces — all capabilities that have proven indispensable for “irregular warfare” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But outside the big win for the LCS, naval procurement is hit hard. The new blueprint calls for slowing production of big new ships to an end goal of ten aircraft-carrier strike groups, down from the current eleven. Precision-strike technology has allowed aircraft carriers to project much more power than ever. But the technology has also made them much more vulnerable to incoming missiles. In the future, strategic bombers, UAVs, and missiles are likely to fill some of the roles played by aircraft carriers today, and the necessary budget adjustments will mean painful dislocations in key congressional districts.

#page#In fact, the budget’s constraining top line, $534 billion, is onerous and will be felt throughout the military — and throughout Congress. According to one estimate, the new budget is $8 billion less than the budget for the current fiscal year. But according to Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation, “The costs of doing everything in the military — from paying people to buying new equipment — greatly outpaces inflation every year.” For these reasons Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has advocated keeping defense spending steady at 4 percent of GDP. But even to maintain that number (which is lower than that of any peacetime budget during the Cold War) the budget would have to grow by $27 billion, according to Eaglen.

The most dramatic result of these pressures comes in manpower. Gates announced that the Army and Marines will meet the “end strength” targets set in the final years of the Bush administration. But neither will be able to grow any larger, even though the force is still “stretched” by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse, because of expected retention problems (due in part, ironically enough, to the enticing new benefits that now await former service members in civilian life), the number of brigades will actually have to be reduced from 48 to 45, stretching the total force further.

In the meantime, procurement costs are also rising, because of the increased consolidation and reduced competitiveness in the military-industrial base. Last year, former senior defense officials Dov Zakheim and Ronald Kadish warned that “unless we act soon, we may find that the only solutions available will be to nationalize the military industrial base or to ‘outsource’ production of our weapons systems, with excessive portions of that work going overseas.”

One way to address that concern is to prioritize quantity over quality where the perfect risks becoming an enemy of the good — as Gates points out, sometimes quantity is quality. Another is to get the services to rely on common adaptable platforms, rather than on weapons specifically designed for them. Reducing the number of F-22s in order to get many more multi-role F-35s is an example of both strategies. But in defense procurement, the complication is always several steps ahead of the solution.

Missile defense takes a big hit in the new budget, nearly 20 percent. The two systems most popular with theater commanders — the Army’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense and the Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense — will be manufactured to the maximum capacity of their production lines, and that’s good. But the cut will then fall disproportionately on some of the missile-defense architecture’s most valuable programs — systems that our allies have invested in with us. This led Jon Kyl, Joe Lieberman, and four other senators to write, in a letter to the president, that “cooperation on missile defense is now a critical component of many of our closest security partnerships around the world. We fear that cuts to the budget for missile defense could inadvertently undermine these relationships and foster the impression that the U.S. is an unreliable ally.”

The one system that actually protects American cities from missile launches will be limited to the 41 interceptors on track to be stationed in Alaska and California. Meanwhile, Gates is gutting the Boeing Airborne Laser, the one system that has any chance of knocking out ballistic missiles while they are still in boost phase — i.e., when they are still moving slowly, before their multiple reentry vehicles have deployed, and while any debris will fall only on the launching country. In November of last year, the system registered history’s first test-firing of a laser weapon from inside an airplane.

#page#These cuts widen a dangerous gap in capabilities created by the perennial refusal of congressional Democrats to allocate even one dime for a study of the proper uses of space in missile defense. Space-based missile defense is really the only conceivable way to provide cost-effective, global, round-the-clock defense against enemy missiles, and particularly against missiles in boost phase. By default, the Pentagon is now staking everything on being able to hit missiles well after boost phase, and even after the separation of the warhead, by which time the target is a cold, dark, small object hurtling through space or plummeting to earth at searing speeds.

Obama has promised never to allow the weaponization of space, reviving a relic of Democratic-party dogma that dates at least from the fight against Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Whether his reasons are moral or religious is not known. Certainly they are not strategic or practical. In the long run, the Democrats are doomed to lose this struggle, because the weaponization of space is inevitable, and indeed is already well under way. Intercontinental ballistic missiles use space for most of their flight path. The Chinese are developing a variety of laser-based and “direct ascent” weapons to knock enemy satellites out of orbit. The only question is whether the Democrats will allow us to start developing space-based missile interceptors in time to avert a historic disaster.

Almost as soon as the Nazis came to power, a young, unknown French army officer named Charles de Gaulle began railing against the passive mindset of the French military establishment, which was recklessly staking all on the static positions of the Maginot Line. He advocated the urgent formation of large armored units capable of rapid maneuver and massive concentrations of force, but bureaucratic inertia resisted the penetration of his ideas. As the Germans expanded tank production, the French kept pace, but their tanks were dispersed to support infantry rather than concentrated in large, cavalry-type units as de Gaulle had urged. When the numerically inferior Germans finally attacked through the Ardennes Forest in May 1940, they outnumbered the Allies more than three to one in armored formations, and took just six weeks to roll up the front all the way to Dunkirk.

The first chapter of de Gaulle’s classic three-volume War Memoirs is devoted to France’s failure to transform its military before World War II. De Gaulle lamented the “illusion that by making war against war, the bellicose would be prevented from making war. . . . In short, everything converged to make passivity the very principle of our national defense.”

Even with liberal Democrats at the helm, the country is far from so passive a mindset. But in the midst of war, our new defense budget charts a course for spending to reach the lowest proportion of GDP since before World War II. When a nation allows itself to grow militarily weak, a passive defense is next, and grave dangers will not be far behind. As Donald Rumsfeld used to say, “Weakness is provocative.” The messenger may have changed, but hopefully the message will not.

– Mr. Loyola, a former adviser in the U.S. Senate and at the Pentagon, is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola, a former foreign-policy adviser at the Pentagon and in the U.S. Senate, is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

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