Budgeting for Empire: Ambitions Outweigh Strategy

One might think that given all the stresses and strains on the U.S. military caused by fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the Defense Department would at least be doing its utmost to grasp the geostrategic realities of the day. But the Pentagon’s last Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released on February 6, 2006 showed that American defense plans continue to fail engagements with reality. While the QDR was big on rhetoric, it was woefully short on action.

The QDR is something the Pentagon goes through every four years. Congress requires the Secretary of Defense to:

Conduct a comprehensive examination (to be known as a “quadrennial defense review”) of the national defense strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, and other elements of the defense program and policies of the United States with a view toward determining and expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a defense program for the next 20 years.

But instead of taking the opportunity to rethink the U.S. military position in the world, the latest version of the QDR continues to position the U.S. as the global policeman, funds outdated weapon systems, and fails to readjust the mission of the military to meet the real threats of the 21st century.

The “New” Vision of Defense

Four years of war against Islamic extremists only persuaded Donald Rumsfeld (who drew up the plans when he was Defense Secretary) to continue to maintain every conventional weapons system in the pipeline. Gone is the talk about canceling major purchases to direct money to a smaller, lighter, faster, high-tech force.

Despite all the spin about how the recent QDR was fully managed by the Rumsfeld Pentagon from start to finish, many think that with much of his time taken up with the Iraq War, Secretary Rumsfeld was far less involved in this QDR than he was in 2001, when the last review was conducted. This time, he delegated much of the decision making to his aides and to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England.

According to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, the QDR had four specific priorities:

  1. Defeating violent extremists;
  2. Defending our homeland;
  3. Helping countries at strategic crossroads; and,
  4. Preventing terrorists and dangerous regimes from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

The problem is that none of these missions are military. As one observer noted:

Military missions entail defending or conquering territory, or destroying the military capabilities of potential aggressors. Military forces are not organized, equipped or trained to “defeat terrorist extremism,” much less to “help shape the choices of countries.” Those are jobs for police, intelligence services or diplomats, and nobody in his right mind would, for example, give the Pentagon responsibility for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And, thankfully, no-one has.

The QDR spoke of an enlarged cadre of Special Forces trained to sneak into dangerous countries to tag, track, and even disarm nuclear weapons. But there was no explanation of how these thoroughly modern missions might connect with the many billions of dollars programmed for more dogfighting jets and a doubling of submarine production.

Retired Army Major General Paul D. Eaton, in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004, has written that the QDR “shows that Mr. Rumsfeld also fails to understand the nature of protracted counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and the demands it places on ground forces. The document, amazingly, does not call for enlarging the Army; rather, it increases only our Special Operations forces, by a token 15 percent, maybe 1,500 troops.”

Of course, if the United States makes the questionable decision to invade other countries, such as Iran, it would need to expand the army. But rather than expanding the army, the QDR actually called for reducing it to its pre-2001 level of 480,000 people.

Costly Programs

The QDR came out just as the Bush administration unveiled its 2007 defense budget. In it, the Pentagon continued to fund three very costly short-range jet fighters: The F/A-22 Raptor, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (which the Pentagon plans to produce before testing demonstrates acceptable performance. The Pentagon also requested Virginia class nuclear attack submarines at $2.4 billion each, the CVN-21 next-generation aircraft carrier, and the DD(X) destroyer.

The army’s Future Combat System (FCS) program represents by far the biggest single investment that the army is planning to make during the next twenty years. The research and development (R&D) portion of the program is scheduled to extend through 2016 and cost a total of $21 billion from 2007 to 2016. The army estimates that total procurement costs for the first fifteen brigades’ worth of systems will be about $100 billion, or an average unit procurement cost per brigade of $6.7 billion.

Even if the need for the FCS system is accepted, questions remain about the program’s technical feasibility and affordability. Some experts doubt that the army can develop and test the necessary technologies in time to start producing lightweight manned vehicles by 2012—a requisite for meeting the deadline to field them, according to the army’s current schedule.

Also, the air force is pumping huge amounts of money into the F-22 program. But some critics believe adding it will actually degrade U.S. combat capability. This is because its enormous cost means reducing money for capabilities that make the critical difference in winning aerial combat, namely pilot training. And the cost of adding stealth capabilities to the F-22 is extraordinary. Pentagon data show the total unit cost of the F-22 has grown over the last two decades from about $130 million to over $350 million per aircraft. Thus, the original purchase of 750 aircraft is now down to 185.

Questioning the wisdom of sinking more money into the F-22, in June 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report recommending, “that Secretary of Defense [sic] delay further investments in F-22A procurement and modernization until [DOD] completes a comprehensive business case analysis that adequately considers alternatives, justifies the need for further investments, and reconciles the numbers of F-22As that are needed (i.e., based on credible current and future threats and considering other alternative approaches) as well as affordable and sustainable (i.e., based on current and expected DOD resource levels).”

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is almost as much of a cost escalation nightmare as the F-22. To paraphrase a WWII song, it is being built on a “wing and a prayer.” It is greatly dependent on a business case that invests heavily in production before testing has demonstrated acceptable aircraft performance. The program expects to begin low-rate initial procurement in 2007, with less than 1 percent of the flight test program completed and no production representative prototypes built for the three JSF variants. Earlier in 2006 the GAO released a report that essentially said the Pentagon is unable to justify more F-22s; there is no current or future threat to warrant them; and they not affordable. Funding for the JSF should be frozen until DOD can make the case that continued production of JSF variants is militarily necessary and that it has developed sufficiently effective program management to prevent further cost escalation.

A Force Structure Ill Equipped for Today’s Challenges

To put it bluntly, the QDR made promises it cannot keep. A Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis noted that:

The most glaring flaw of the 2006 QDR was that it called for the DoD to have its cake and eat it too. Presumably, US force structure had to be realigned to counter the irregular and asymmetric threats posed by international terrorist networks, failed states, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But this realignment could only take place through a far more dramatic shift in resources away from expensive Cold War-era weapon systems designed for conventional deterrence and major theater wars. Instead, the 2006 QDR and the FY2007 budget request preserved every major weapons system and simply added projects to deal with the new challenges without calling for an increase in the number of troops.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments noted that, “DoD faces a significant mismatch between its long-term force structure and modernization plans, and projected funding levels. And the QDR, as reflected in the FY 2007 budget request and the FY 2007-11 Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) would do little to improve the affordability of DoD’s long-term plans, Moreover, some of the proposed shifts in priorities—such as the accelerated fielding of a new long-range strike aircraft are likely to be dependent, for their implementation, on the willingness and ability of a future administration to make offsetting cuts in other DoD priorities. The QDR and FY 2007 budget request have, for the most part, deferred these difficult choices.”

In addition, the concept of force transformation, or what used to be called the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” is hardly something that only liberals are skeptical about. Consider what retired army officer Ralph Peters wrote in the neoconservative Weekly Standard:

From Iraq’s Sunni Triangle to China’s military high command, the counterrevolution in military affairs is well underway. We are seduced by what we can do; our enemies focus on what they must do. . . . Terrorists, for one lethal example, do not fear “network-centric warfare” because they have already mastered it for a tiny fraction of one cent on the dollar, achieving greater relative effects with the Internet, cell phones, and cheap airline tickets than all of our military technologies have delivered. Our prime weapon in our struggles with terrorists, insurgents, and warriors of every patchwork sort remains the soldier or Marine; yet, confronted with reality’s bloody evidence, we simply pretend that other, future, hypothetical wars will justify the systems we adore–purchased at the expense of the assets we need.

We also have no real idea of what the total bill for force transformation will be. A July 2006 CSIS report noted that, “the Department of Defense has never provided a detailed spending plan for force transformation. It has also never done anything approaching an adequate job of costing and funding future procurement.”

In fact, the July 2006 issue of the Budget Bulletin, a monthly publication prepared by the Senate Budget Committee’s Republican staff, concluded that, over the coming decade, the military will fall drastically short of the money it needs to buy, operate, and maintain all the weapons systems churning through the pipeline. The report concluded that the best way to keep defense spending in check in the coming years lies in “controlling the cost of weaponry,” especially those programs that the Pentagon might not necessarily need.

Many unneeded weapons systems still could be removed. A report from the Center for American Progress advocates cutting development and production of eight major weapons types: the F-22 fighter, the Virginia class submarine, the DD(X) Destroyer, the V-22 Osprey, the C-130J transport aircraft, offensive space-based weaponry, further deployment of the U.S. national missile defense system, and “obsolete and unnecessary elements of the nuclear posture.”

Congress might be more willing to cut weapon systems under development if it knew about problems with them that were uncovered during testing. But the Office of Operational Test and Evaluation (OTE), created by Congress, as a result of the procurement scandals in the Reagan administration, to review the performance of new weapons, has not publicly released an assessment in four years, raising concerns that the Department of Defense’s commitment to oversight is dwindling at a time when weapons spending is on the rise. While OTE still prepares annual reports, none has been made public since 2002. Between 1998 and 2002, however, the office issued dozens of reports on weapons under development for the various military branches.

Conclusions

To sum up, the situation in regard to the U.S. military is not only bad, it is worse than we think.

The latest Quadrennial Defense Review has come and gone but has had little positive impact. As it was not driven by strategy, it had the same problems that past QDRs did. Despite Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s proclaimed mission of transforming the military, another goal whose eventual total costs we do not know, every single Cold War weapon system that was previously in the procurement pipeline remains. A review that was supposed to aid in restructuring the military to deal with asymmetric threats revealed that the Pentagon’s biggest asymmetrical threat is its own internal planning.

There is no easy solution to any of this. It has taken years to get to this point. Fixing the various problems will assuredly take longer.

The first step is to acknowledge we have a problem. That problem is one of addiction, namely to the use of military force. The old saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” applies here. But the U.S. military is not some all-purpose handy gadget. The number of things for which it can usefully be employed is actually quite limited. The military can be “transformed” many times, but fighting a counterinsurgency, for example, will continue to be a dangerous, messy, people-intensive effort.

Once this is understood, certain steps can be taken. That U.S. forces need to withdraw soon from Iraq is a certainty, not a possibility, despite all the rhetoric about not cutting and running. Once U.S. forces are withdrawn, current high optempo strains will ease, permitting the military to start retraining and reequipping its forces.

Reequipping forces, however, does not mean proceeding with unneeded Cold War legacy systems. Eliminating some of the major weapons systems previously cited will save hundreds of billions of dollars. Cutting these unnecessary programs will not just save money, but also it will allow funds to be transferred to other equally critical needs, such as manpower and operations and maintenance costs.

While cuts in modernization programs are necessary, it is equally important to cut force structure. The navy and air force are already going in that direction, having reduced their end strengths. Formalizing that situation will allow significant cost savings in the future. Smaller forces will relieve pressure on procurement budgets, as the services will be able to get rid of their older systems first, allowing for a procurement holiday. And, since at least some of the new systems are more capable than their predecessors, there will not be a need for one-for-one replacement.

David Isenberg is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and a senior research analyst at the British American Security Information Council. This paper is excerpted from a longer report by the Independent Institute.