The Plane That Won’t Die…Or Fly

Calling the V-22 Osprey a Rube Goldberg contraption does some disservice to the late cartoonist who died in 1970. Vice President Dick Cheney tried to kill the V-22 in the early 1990s, when he was defense secretary. But it lives on today, and the Marine Corps announced on April 13 that in September it will begin flying its first combat missions in Iraq. A combination helicopter-plane with bells and whistles galore might have appealed to Rube, but he wouldn’t have unveiled it in public until he’d made it work.

The V-22, by contrast, was grounded by malfunctioning flight control systems as recently as a month ago. The latest engine fire occurred in December 2006; no one died (this time) because the plane had already landed. The saga of unreadiness goes back through this plane’s 25 years of development and $20 billion worth of taxpayer funding. It is supposed to transport troops around Iraq and go on rescue missions to retrieve them. But its design hampers its capacity for evasive maneuvering. And the guns originally designed for the front had to be moved to the back, partially blocking the doors and making it harder for troops to get on and off.

This is what happens when you: take an aircraft that was already trying to do too many things for the Cold War; try to retrofit it for the post-Cold War period, then the War on Terror; and then rush it into a war while it still … needs work.

What keeps this thing alive (if not, reliably, capable of flight)? Certainly, there are the obvious suspects of enormous stables of dedicated lobbyists and jobs carefully dispersed in key congressional districts. Then, there’s a federal budget process that keeps money flowing in the pipeline for weapons systems we don’t need, and fails to examine the big-picture question of what, overall, we do need to make us safer.

As our country seeks to find its way out of a disastrous war, this question must no longer be deferred. While projecting spending on the war to decline in future years, Pentagon officials are making the case to the budget and appropriations committees that military spending overall must rise during those years. If Congress funds the President’s request for FY 2008, we will already be spending more on the military in real terms than at any time since World War II.

Is this the right way to make us safer? Majorities of Americans don’t think so. Recent polling from worldpublicopinion.org shows that most see our current aggressive, unilateral foreign policy as eroding our standing in the world and making terrorist attacks more likely. They support a less militarized, less unilateral approach.

Though Rube’s contraptions were ridiculous and useless, the gears did mesh and the parts were delicately balanced. In our teeteringly unbalanced security budget, 90 percent of our resources will go to the military, 6 percent to homeland security, and 4 percent to non-military international affairs. We’re putting 21 times more money engaging the rest of the world through the military than by any other means, including diplomacy, programs to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, peacekeeping and peace building, economic development, and contributions to international organizations.

This is the sad story laid out in A Unified Security Budget for the United States, FY 2008, released today. Each year a task force of experts in each area of security spending—offensive (the military), defensive (homeland security) and preventive (non-military international affairs) reports the facts of the relative balance (or imbalance) among these security tools. Then we lay out a way to fix it. This year we make the case for cuts to military programs, like the V-22, that can be made with no sacrifice to our security. And we propose additional spending on homeland security and non-military international affairs. This shift would convert a highly military 9-to-1 security ratio into a better balance of 5-to-1.

The hard part will be getting this done in the real world. A budget process working through “stovepiped” committees that rarely talk to each other makes this difficult. A new feature of this year’s report, therefore, is a set of suggestions for how these stovepipes might be transcended.

Putting together the pieces of a broken budget process in a new way will be a necessary step in repairing a broken foreign policy.

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, writing and speaking on demilitarization issues for its Foreign Policy In Focus project.