Congress's Vital Role in Building a Strong National Defense

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Congress's Vital Role in Building a Strong National Defense

June 9, 2003 7 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

The 2004 national security budget process is well underway. In the end, approximately $400 billion of taxpayers' money will be allocated for national defense. This includes not only $379 billion in Pentagon spending, but also spending in other departments, such as the Department of Energy, for national security related programs.1 The annual process, which consists of an Administration request for funds followed by congressional authorization and appropriation, is often wrought with politics, deal making, and inappropriate spending.

This year is no different. However, the national security environment is different. The nation continues to fight the war on terrorism, modernize its military to prepare for future crises, and transform its industrial-age military into a digital-age force. While each of these separate but related endeavors is expensive, each is also critical to national security. Therefore, it is vitally important that Congress ensure a smart 2004 defense spending package by funding bomber modernization, improving the nuclear forces, and funding Army transformation.


The United States faces the emerging danger of enemies that can attack America's forward basing areas and place regional combat assets at risk. Modern, long-range bombers are vital in this environment because of their ability to strike high-priority and highly defended targets like air defense batteries, command-and-control infrastructure, and missile batteries from secure bases far away from potential combat zones.

The contribution of long-range bombers to Operation Iraqi Freedom has once again shown that they are critical to the success of America's armed forces. Yet the Pentagon's budget request does not include money to research, develop, and procure a new long-range bomber. While the United States plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next three decades to purchase short-range tactical aircraft, research and development of a replacement bomber is not scheduled to even begin for another 10 years.

Although the budget request includes funds to modernize existing bombers, this does not compensate for America's aging bomber force--which consists largely of B-52s from the 1950s and B-1s designed in the 1970s. The U.S. maintains only 21 modern B-2s.

Fortunately, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee had the foresight to include $100 million for research and development of a new long-range, deep-strike bomber. This would jump-start the process currently scheduled to begin in 2013. As the budget process proceeds, Congress should keep these funds in the budget and seriously consider other near-term options for modernizing the bomber forces.


The United States must develop a nuclear arsenal that adequately reflects the modern world. In the past 12 years, the Cold War has ended, Russia has taken control of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and has agreed to drastic reductions in strategic arms, China has begun a nuclear modernization program, India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons, and nations like Iran and North Korea have edged closer to becoming nuclear states. Furthermore, al-Qaeda has demonstrated that America's adversaries are capable of inflicting mass casualties on U.S. soil.

Yet the United States still maintains a Cold War nuclear arsenal.

It is time to reevaluate the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy, especially the utility of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Traditionally, these weapons have been necessary to counter an adversary with very large land forces that could overrun America's more expeditionary forces. While this requirement endures, tactical nuclear weapons may also be the best way to address the new set of threats.

A tactical nuclear force, for example, would counter any battlefield advantage an adversary may gain from striking U.S. and allied forces with weapons of mass destruction and thus deter an adversary from using such weapons. Also, low-yield nuclear weapons may be the best way to target large biological-weapons production facilities. Unlike a conventional bomb, which would destroy the facility but spread the biological agent, a nuclear device would incinerate the agent as well.

Critics have argued that a nuclear device would simply replace the chemical or biological agent with radiation. This is not necessarily true, however, for a number of reasons. The weapons most likely would have a very small yield and thus would produce little fallout. Furthermore, they could be engineered to burrow into the ground before detonation, thereby containing the radiation below ground. Finally, the explosion itself can be engineered to reduce the harmful radiation that is normally associated with a nuclear explosion.

Furthermore, America's application of information technology has given it unprecedented advantages on the battlefield. With precision-guided munitions, the U.S. armed forces are able to target almost anything, anywhere, at any time. America's enemies will adapt to this advantage by placing their troops, weapons, command and control, and other combat elements underground. Until adequate conventional forces can be developed to destroy these underground targets, the United States must explore a low-yield tactical nuclear option.

While nuclear capabilities will continue to serve as a deterrent in a world where biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons are proliferating at a dangerous pace, the United States must reevaluate its nuclear arsenal and develop a nuclear force posture that is more consistent with modern threats. The Bush Administration has requested both relief from legislation that prohibits low-yield nuclear weapons research and $21 million in funding for feasibility studies that would begin to define the role that nuclear weapons should play in the 21st century. While these provisions have survived so far, they are controversial and could be removed at some future date. This would be a mistake.


Operation Iraqi Freedom is already providing some early lessons on ground force modernization. Chief among them is that strategic agility cannot be undervalued in modern warfare, in which extremely short time lines are combined with very long distances. Army transformation addresses this reality and thus should be accelerated.

Yet some Members of Congress could slow this transformation if their funding recommendations were to move forward. For example, some in the House Armed Services Committee have attempted to transfer $300 million away from the Army's Stryker program to other, more traditional capabilities, such as helicopter and tank upgrades. The Stryker is critical to Army transformation. As a system, it improves deployability and speed by approximately a third over older Army systems. It is more mobile than today's armored vehicle and will bridge the gap between today's heavy forces and tomorrow's lighter ones.

Units that have trained with the Stryker have been largely impressed with its infantry delivery capabilities. The vehicle will have other configurations, including a mobile 105mm cannon, a mortar carrier, and a fire-support vehicle. Some of these configurations have yet to be proven. Three Stryker brigades have been procured, a fourth has been funded, and two more are planned.

Furthermore, Members of Congress have questioned the legitimacy of other transformational programs like Land Warrior and Future Combat System, each of which should be fully supported by the Congress. The Land Warrior program will integrate sensors, communications, and other advanced technologies to turn the individual infantryman into a sensor-equipped fighting system. It will increase his lethality, mobility, and survivability and weigh less than 40 pounds. The Future Combat System (not a single platform) will include surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting systems and will likely combine manned and unmanned platforms. It is intended eventually to replace the Army's current fleet of tanks and fighting vehicles.

Events during Operation Iraqi Freedom, such as Turkey's refusal to grant coalition forces basing rights and emerging "targets of opportunity," required an extremely flexible force to respond appropriately. Whether the war was meant to begin with the much-touted "shock and awe" strategy, a rolling land attack, or some combination of the two, most believe that it began earlier then planned. The result was that hostilities likely commenced before such conditions as enemy disposition and weather were optimal and before coalition forces were fully disembarked and in place.

With the Army's transformed forces, this probably would not have been the case. These forces--the so-called Objective Force--will give the Army the capability to deploy brigade-size combat forces globally four days after liftoff, a division after one more day, and five divisions within 30 days. Programs like Stryker, Future Combat System, and Land Warrior will make the Objective Force possible.

Not that the Army should have or even could have fielded its lighter, more mobile, and highly lethal forces in time for Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the war demonstrates the need to field these capabilities as soon as possible. Fully funding the Army's Land Warrior at $94 million and the Future Combat System and associated artillery programs at the requested amount of $1.7 billion should be priorities for Congress.


While the 2004 defense authorization bill is generally a good bill, failure to fully fund the programs describe above would present obstacles to ensuring a strong national defense in future years. America's long-range bomber force is old and needs to be modernized; its nuclear force structure is largely a relic of the Cold War; and Army transformation must move forward to give America's soldiers the tools they need to succeed.

Each of these programs, however, is vulnerable to cuts in the concluding elements of the budget process. Congress must ensure that they all remain fully funded.

Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. This does not include spending for the Department of Homeland Security.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom