February 20, 2007
By Jim Talent
In 1979, the captain of the USS Canisteo refused to
certify his ship as seaworthy, because, in his opinion, his men had
not been adequately trained. It was the first time in 15 years that
a U.S. Navy captain had refused to take his ship to sea. His
courage, coupled with a blistering report about lack of military
readiness authored by former defense secretary Melvin Laird, and
followed in 1980 by the Desert One fiasco in Iran, made graphically
clear that years of underfunding had left America's military
"hollow." Like a freshly painted house with no plumbing or wiring
inside, the military looked functional; but in reality, it was too
poorly trained and equipped to be reliable.
At the time, America's resolution was already in question because
of Vietnam and the weakness of foreign policy during the Carter
years. It was no accident that by the end of President Carter's
term the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and the new regime in Iran
had seized the American embassy in Tehran. America's enemies were
reacting to her weakness like rats in a room where the lights had
gone dim: They had come out of their holes and begun to probe,
scouting for opportunities to advance their ambitions and threaten
President Reagan had no formal experience in foreign policy and no
training in military affairs. But he understood the basic equation
of world leadership: force plus resolve equals power. Despite the
large budget deficits, President Reagan secured two immediate
double-digit increases in the defense budget, followed by
substantial increases for several years thereafter.
The effect was electric. Military morale skyrocketed. Training
improved, and the Pentagon was able to recapitalize its "platforms"
-- the military term for ships, planes, and vehicles -- with
equipment that used the latest technology and was therefore less
vulnerable and more lethal. The geriatric leaders of the USSR, who
a few years before had dreamed of building a blue-water navy that
could challenge the U.S., now realized that they were in a
competition they could not possibly win: The "correlation of
forces" was moving decisively in the direction of freedom.
Throughout the rest of the 1980s, the reality of growing American
power, coupled with Reagan's eloquence and conviction, forced the
Soviets increasingly into a corner. Finally they threw in the
towel. Only a few years later, America's newly empowered military
paid another dividend: It provided the overwhelming force behind
Operation Desert Storm. The strategic buildup Reagan initiated made
possible the end of the Cold War, and the peace and prosperity that
America enjoyed throughout the 1990s, and up until 9/11.
America is now reaching a decision point similar to the one Reagan
faced in 1981, and it is important to understand clearly what is at
stake. America is the defender of freedom in the world and
therefore always a prime target for those who hate freedom. The
progress of the international order toward peace and democracy
depends on American power; and while the basket of Western foreign
policy contains many tools, what underpins them all is a U.S.
military that the world knows is capable of defeating threats
swiftly and effectively.
Judged by this standard, the situation facing the U.S. military is
grave. America's armed forces are, in one respect, better off than
in 1981. The volunteer force is a proven, mature, and successful
model; America is protected by the finest servicemen and women in
history. But because of decisions over the last 15 years -- driven
more by budgetary than by military considerations -- the Army is
too small, the Navy and Marine Corps may well be too small, and
much of the equipment in all the services is too old and
increasingly unreliable. Without a substantial increase in
procurement spending, beginning now and sustained over the next
five to ten years -- an increase measured not in billions but in
tens of billions of dollars per year above current estimates -- the
U.S. will be unable to modernize its forces to the degree necessary
to preserve its security with the necessary margin of safety.
President Bush, to his credit, has submitted a budget for FY 2008
that begins to recognize the true requirements of American
security. If the president has his way, defense spending will
increase by more than 10 percent over last year. That is a hugely
important first step, but it is not enough. Congress should give
the president his request for defense this year -- but both ends of
Pennsylvania Avenue also need to adopt a rule that the core defense
budget should never sink below 4 percent of the nation's GDP. The
War on Terror will eventually end, but the need for American
strength will not; there is no conceivable international scenario
for the next generation that does not justify at least such a
modest ongoing investment in the nation's security. As Reagan liked
to say, "Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because
America was too strong."
THE NECESSARY UPKEEP
The world today is, on balance, at least as dangerous as it was at
the end of the Cold War. The U.S. is no longer in danger of a
massive nuclear attack, nor is a major land war in Europe likely,
but the threats we face are no less serious. America is engaged in
a war against terrorism that will last for years. The danger of a
rogue missile attack is greater than ever. China is emerging as a
peer competitor much faster than most of us expected, and Russia's
brief experiment with democracy is failing.
The "operational tempo" of American conventional forces -- the
number, intensity, and duration of their deployments -- has
increased since the end of the Cold War. Yet the forces were almost
twice as big in 1992 as they are today. The active-duty Army was
cut from 18 divisions during Desert Storm to ten by 1994 -- its
size today. The Navy, which counted 568 ships in the late 1980s,
struggles today to sustain a fleet of only 276. And the number of
tactical air wings in the Air Force was reduced from 37 at the time
of Desert Storm to 20 by the mid-1990s.
Modernization budgets also were cut substantially during the
Clinton years, and procurement budgets were cut much further than
the cuts in force size and structure warranted. In essence, the
Clinton administration took a "procurement holiday" where the
military was concerned. The contrast in the average annual
procurement of major equipment in two periods -- 1975 to 1990 and
1991 to 2000 -- is startling. For example, the Pentagon purchased
an average of 78 scout and attack helicopters each year from 1975
to 1990, and only seven each year from 1991 to 2000. An average of
238 Air Force fighters and five tanker aircraft were procured each
year from 1975 to 1990, as against only 28 and one per year,
respectively, from 1991 to 2000.
These dramatic reductions had profound implications. When older
platforms are not replaced, readiness levels drop, and the cost of
maintaining inventory climbs rapidly. By the end of the Carter
years, the force had gone "hollow"; by the end of the Clinton
years, it had begun to "rust," badly. The George W. Bush
administration has increased procurement budgets, but nowhere near
enough to make up for the 1990s. The average age of Air Force
aircraft in 1973 was just nine years. Today, the average aircraft
is 24 years old and aircraft-modernization funding has dropped by
nearly 20 percent over the last 22 years.
The current force is too small and too old relative to the
requirements of the official national military strategy. That
strategy calls for a military capable of defending the homeland,
sustaining four peacekeeping engagements, and fighting two
large-scale regional conflicts at approximately the same time. The
services today probably cannot execute even this strategy within an
acceptable margin of risk. Certainly they will be unable to do so
in the future unless the Army and probably the Marine Corps are
made bigger and unless all the services have the money to
recapitalize their major platforms with modern equipment.
For years, the Joint Chiefs have been under pressure from
political authorities to reduce the budget below what they really
need. So they have delayed new programs, reduced the number of new
ships or planes they say they need, kicked crucial procurement
decisions down the road, robbed Peter to pay Paul, and otherwise
tried to avoid confronting the approaching crisis.
But the crisis is upon them, and us, now. The military is entering
a crucial phase of recapitalization. Beginning with the next
budget, and intensifying over the next five to ten years, the
services are scheduled to field the new platforms that will anchor
American security for the next generation. No one can say that this
spending is not needed or that it can be delayed any further. The
Army must modernize and replace almost its entire capital stock of
fighting vehicles. The Navy must buy new DDG-1000 destroyers, ramp
up procurement of Virginia-class submarines, and buy large numbers
of littoral combat ships and the next-generation cruiser. The Air
Force must buy its new superiority fighter, the F-22, as well as
Joint Strike Fighters or equivalent aircraft. In addition, the Air
Force must fund its strategic-airlift requirement, design and build
a new tanker, and develop an interdiction bomber to replace the
B-52, an aircraft almost 50 years old.
The current procurement budget for all three services is $81.3
billion. Simple budgetary mathematics shows that the services
cannot possibly meet their crucial requirements without an average
budget over the next five to ten years that is at least $30 billion
higher per year.
The situation facing the Navy is representative of the dilemma
facing all the services. Currently the Navy has 276 ships. Its
shipbuilding plan calls for 326 ships by 2020, eventually reaching
a fleet that averages 313 ships. The plan actually calls for a
reduction in aircraft carriers, attack submarines, and major
surface combatants, but makes up for this with modern destroyers,
more capable submarines, pre-positioning ships that will allow us
to build and defend "sea bases," and the whole new class of
multi-mission modular vessels called littoral combat ships. There
is no margin whatsoever in this plan; it is the minimum necessary
for American security.
The chief of naval operations, the admiral who represents the Navy
on the Joint Chiefs, has estimated that the plan will require an
annual shipbuilding budget that averages $13.4 billion, almost $5
billion more than was spent on shipbuilding last year. His plan
calls for that figure to increase to $17.5 billion by 2012. Most
naval experts believe these figures are far too conservative. But
it will be utterly impossible, at current levels of defense
spending, for the Navy to reach and sustain even the $13.4 billion
figure; the money simply is not there. Beginning no later than
2009, there will be a growing shortfall in the shipbuilding
accounts, in addition to an annual shortfall of $1 to $2 billion
per year in Navy aviation procurement.
The bottom line is that the Navy needs at least an $8 billion
procurement increase per year above current estimates. The Marine
Corps needs about $3 billion more per year. It is not necessary to
go into great detail with regard to the budgetary picture for the
Air Force and Army; the pain has been spread fairly evenly across
the services, and all face roughly the same shortfalls. That equals
a procurement deficit over the next ten years of at least $30
billion per year. Most independent experts believe the number is
even higher. For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates
that the shortfall, including expected increases in personnel
costs, will be a minimum of $52 billion per year.
Add to this the fact that the active-duty Army is clearly too
small. Even in an age of transformation and non-linear
battlefields, America will always need the capacity to put boots on
the ground. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. needs the
ability to carry on sustained, large-scale peacekeeping or
low-intensity combat missions, without having to send the same
units on three or four tours over the life of a mission. A nation
of America's size and strength should not have to tie up
essentially its whole active-duty Army, much of its Marine Corps,
and many of its reserves in order to sustain 130,000 troops in the
kind of low-intensity combat we are experiencing in Iraq.
In 1992, just after Desert Storm, the Pentagon stated a
requirement of twelve active-duty Army divisions, before the
increases in operational tempo of the 1990s and before the War on
Terror. The Army should surely have at least twelve divisions
today. To their credit, President Bush and defense secretary Robert
Gates have proposed such an increase. It costs at least $2 billion
to stand up and sustain an addition to the army of division
strength, which means we need to invest about $4 billion per year
or more in increased Army force structure, in addition to the $30
billion more in new procurement funding.
So to sustain our military at the level necessary to protect our
security, we must increase procurement, personnel, and support
spending by at least $34 billion above the FY 2007 budget. It may
be possible to fund a small fraction of this increase from reforms
in the rest of the defense budget. Congress typically adds $3 or $4
billion worth of earmarked appropriations every year. Some of those
earmarks are actually warranted, but a dedicated effort to reduce
those that aren't could produce $1 or $2 billion in savings per
year. The cost of new programs has certainly spiraled -- there are
still $400 hammers floating around in the defense industry -- and
the right kind of procurement reform might reduce them
The unstable and inadequate defense budgetary climate is itself a
major reason program costs have increased. The Defense Department
regularly projects what it intends to buy in the out years of its
defense plan, but then institutes last-minute cuts, changes, and
delays that allow it to meet annual budget targets but increase
program costs in the long run. The Navy, for example, originally
planned to buy a total of 32 DDG-1000s -- the Navy's
next-generation multi-mission destroyer. A few years later, Navy
officials said the military requirements had dropped to only eight
to twelve destroyers, and the most recent Navy plan now calls for a
total of only seven. It is no coincidence that over the same
period, due to the loss of economies of scale, the cost per
destroyer has increased.
Those who understand the free market will not be surprised that
the years of uncertainty and low defense budgets caused capital and
companies to merge or leave the defense business. That means fewer
competitors, more sole-source contracts, less research, and
therefore higher costs.
The reality is that there is no huge pot of money currently in the
defense budget from which the necessary increase can be funded. It
cannot come from reducing the number of service personnel because
the military is already too small. Precisely because of budget
pressures in the past, the service chiefs have already reduced
force structure to dangerous levels. That is why the Navy is
"cross-decking" sailors -- helicoptering them from a ship returning
home to one that is steaming out to sea -- in order to man all its
vessels. Nor can the money come from reducing the compensation we
pay our servicemen and women. Apart from the fact that Congress
would and should never reduce compensation in the middle of a war,
the services must hire and retain high-quality people. The more
modern the military becomes, the more skills it demands, and
skilled people cost money. There is no such thing as a "grunt" in
today's military. The truth is that spending on personnel benefits
is much more likely to increase than decrease. Total spending on
defense health care, for example, increased from $17.5 billion in
2000 to $37 billion in 2006.
WE CAN DO IT
The good news is that robust and consistent funding of the
military is fully within America's capability. Currently the U.S.
spends only 3.8 percent of its GDP on the core defense budget,
including the non-Department of Defense expenditures for national
security. That is far lower than during the Cold War, and almost a
full percentage point less than was spent even during the Carter
years. America's economy is so powerful that even after years of
underfunding military procurement, the U.S. could still
recapitalize and sustain its military strength by enacting the $34
billion increase I mentioned earlier, and maintaining defense
spending at no less than 4 percent of GDP thereafter.
This program -- called the "4% for Freedom Solution" by the
Heritage Foundation -- would send the clearest possible message to
America's friends and enemies that, whatever happens in Iraq,
America will remain a force to be reckoned with. For some purposes,
defense policy is foreign policy. Imagine the impact on China and
North Korea, for example, of realizing that the U.S., by using only
a small fraction of its economic resources, can guarantee an
increased and highly capable naval presence in the Western Pacific
for years to come.
The 4% for Freedom Solution would also have a positive impact on
our long-term fiscal position. First, it would focus debate about
the deficit squarely where it belongs: on the entitlement programs.
Even a glance at the government's budget shows that growth in
entitlement programs, not in defense or other discretionary
spending, poses the real long-term threat to solvency. If Congress
reforms entitlement spending, there will be more than enough money
for defense; if Congress fails to get entitlements under control,
then funding defense on the cheap will not save the country from
Second, assuring sufficient funding for defense would promote more
efficient use of defense dollars. Capital would flow back into the
defense industrial base, and the service chiefs could attempt what
in Washington has heretofore been unthinkable: long-term planning.
They could budget in a way that reduces costs over the life of new
systems, instead of fighting each other for money every year, or
maneuvering each budget cycle just to keep vital programs alive.
President Bush's proposed double-digit increase is welcome
news; but large swings in defense funding always cost the taxpayer
more than solid, consistent funding over time.
Finally, American power is an important stabilizing force in the
world; by reassuring the financial markets about American strength,
the 4% for Freedom Solution would help reduce risk within the
international economy and promote economic growth at home and
abroad. Even a small positive impact on the economy would more than
pay for the additional investment in military capability. How much
would it be worth economically, for example, to reduce the risk
that China invades Taiwan, or Kim Jong Il is tempted to use his
nuclear capability? The peace and prosperity of the 1990s,
remember, were due at least in part to the Reagan defense buildup
of the 1980s. The Reagan precedent is also the answer to those who
are concerned about the short-term impact of the 4% for Freedom
Solution on the deficit. It is true that military strength has its
price, but as Jimmy Carter found out, there is a price to be paid
for weakness, too.
President Bush's recent defense-budget submission is the best news
for American security in 15 years. The Democratic leaders should
fully fund it, and the administration deserves credit for proposing
it. But it would not have been necessary if the Clinton
administration had not cut defense spending in the 1990s, or if the
first George W. Bush administration had more robustly funded the
needs that were clearly apparent even in 2001. By adopting the "4%
for Freedom Solution," our leaders can show that for once they have
learned the lessons of the past. There never will be a war that
ends all wars; history has shown that, even in years where threats
do not seem immediate, the dangers remain -- and only the reality
and perception of American power can deter them from breaking
Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow in military affairs at
the Heritage Foundation. He served in the U.S. House of
Representatives (1993-2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002-2007). He was
a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four
years, chairman of the committee's Seapower Subcommittee.
First appeared in the March 5, 2007 issue of National Review.
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