July 18, 2002

July 18, 2002 | Commentary on Middle East

Putting the War Effort on Defense

Congress has no problem shelling out $6.5 billion for mass-transit systems that fewer and fewer Americans use each year. It manages to fully fund Medicare, despite $23 billion in waste and fraud each year. It pays farmers -- mostly mega-corporations, actually -- $1.3 billion not to grow certain crops.

But federal lawmakers have only recently begun to respond to a request the Bush administration made March 21 for $14 billion to help the Defense Department wage war on terrorism. It passed a House-Senate conference committee on July 18, and Pentagon officials say they're confident Congress will try to work out any problems it has with the request before the August recess. But time is short, and it's downright scary to think what could happen if this supplemental budget request does not move forward before then.

The Defense Department has asked for $7.2 billion basically to deploy forces and equipment and rotate new soldiers to the front. It's asked for $4.1 billion to pay the 82,000 reservists and National Guard members called to active duty since Sept. 11. The rest would go for the Air Force to pay people it prevented from retiring in the wake of Sept. 11, munitions and what the Pentagon calls "coalition support" -- helping Pakistan, mainly, allay the expense of helping us fight the war.

For weeks, the Defense Department has been meeting today's expenses with money allocated for the fourth quarter of the fiscal year. This arrangement works nicely until the fourth quarter arrives on Aug. 30, and the military has no money left.

Then, we get to find out what actually happens if Congress doesn't solve this before the recess. Planning for this has begun. The EA-6B, an airplane that jams enemy radars to protect troops and other American planes, falls into what's called the HD-LD category-high-demand, low-density. In short, we need it a lot, and we don't have many. If funds don't arrive soon for maintenance, planes will be pulled out of service so they can be used as "hangar queens" -- cannibalized for spare parts for other planes. Same goes for combat aircraft, such as the F-18.

And by the middle of August, absent the supplemental, the Air Force will cease many training flights. Oh, those guys all know how to fly already, some say. Well, how long can they fly high-speed, high-stress missions without making mistakes that cost lives? And is it worth it to find out they can't? No training means no relief for people who work under incredibly demanding circumstances for dangerously long periods.

By the end of August -- that is, before Congress could return from the recess and rectify things -- payrolls also would go unmet. The Defense Department has said it would have to furlough up to 35,000 civilians who staff its bases and facilities.

Navy ships would have to cut back on operations and eventually be forced to return to port absent the funding. The supply line that keeps our military going extends more than halfway around the world. The Army would have to cancel three training events -- two battalions visiting the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and one brigade going through an entire training rotation.

And that's not to mention the security measures that will be postponed. Most bases are constructing "lay-by" lanes to inspect all trucks that make deliveries; will the trucks simply not be inspected? Then there's the calamity for families of service men and women who could find themselves calling off planned moves, scrambling to pay rent, and struggling to get their kids in school.

So it's a fair question: Why the delay? More than 3,000 of our fellow citizens died in the Sept. 11 attacks, and a dark force inimical to our way of life and committed to training its full intellectual, financial and war-making capabilities on us lurks. The Taliban may be gone from Afghanistan, but al Qaeda continues to operate, and our costs in weapons, systems and personnel figure to escalate -- from $2 billion per month now to $2.5 billion -- as the war moves to its next stage.

If Congress doesn't act before the recess, Pentagon officials say it will set back purchasing, deployment, maintenance and training at least 10 weeks. And that's provided the issues get resolved immediately upon Congress' return.

Given that superior training accounts for much of America's military advantage over its opponents, skimping there does not serve us well. Given that the dependence on National Guard and reserve units has reached the point where active units find it nearly impossible to deploy without reserve support, training becomes even more critical.

As for spare parts, we can either buy those or skimp now on parts and find ourselves buying entire planes in the near future. It's penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Jack Spencer is a defense policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity

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