March 17, 2009
By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, there was a president who promised to spend
less on defense and give us more. And he did -- in a manner of
The president was Jimmy Carter. America's tragedy in Vietnam had
ended. The military was worn out after almost a decade of war.
Congress had "financed" combat operations largely by deferring the
purchase of new weapons, deferring maintenance, and otherwise
cutting corners -- paring bases in NATO countries, reducing troops on
Korea's DMZ, etc.
But when Carter came to the White Houses in 1977, rather than
simply invest in rebuilding America's military, he promised America
one better. He endorsed defense Secretary Harold Brown's "offset"
Instead of fixing the equipment on hand or buying new stuff, the
Pentagon would invest in "next generation" Technology that would
offset the fact that the Soviets had a lot more ships, planes, and
people. Brown planned to provide the American military with an
overwhelming technological competitive advantage.
Offset also allowed Carter, in the face of a poor economy, to
cut defense spending to the bone. By "skipping a generation" of
weapons, the White House could gut the equipment purchasing budget
and throw a few extra dollars into researching new weapons -- and
claim it was not being weak on national security.
To its credit, research started in the Carter years did produce
some new capabilities -- most of it, however, did not get to the
field until the Cold War was almost over.
In the meantime, America did get more for less -- just as the
president promised. But, the "more" was just a lot more risk. No
matter what fancy strategy or cost-savings a president promises,
under-funding the military hollows out the force, leaving it with
not enough to maintain trained and ready troops, pay for current
operations, and prepare for the future. That's what happened under
Carter. All this became all too clear when the Army Chief of Staff
General "Shy" Meyer testified before Congress that he had 16
divisions on paper -- only four of them were ready go to combat.
President Obama won't unveil his first defense budget for a few
weeks, yet. But all signs indicate that the "offset" is back.
In his address to Congress, the President promised to eliminate
unnecessary "Cold War" weapons -- and get the troops the equipment
they really need. That sounds like Carter all over again.
All the "Cold War" weapons still in the Pentagon's
inventory -- tanks, planes, ships -- are already bought and paid for.
And they are still in use -- from aircraft carriers to cruise
missiles. Scrap them, and you'll have to replace them.
Every system that we are buying now or plan to buy has been
justified over the last 20 years by Democratic and Republican
presidents and funded by Democratic and Republican Congresses based
on "future requirements" not refighting the last war.
Missile defense is a case in point. We didn't start building
defenses until after the Cold War ended, and we built it not to
counter the Soviet threat but deal with new missile powers like
North Korea and Iran.
If the president chooses to scrap all or any of this, there will
be little or nothing to replace it. It takes years to get a new
program up and running. Many troops entering the military now will
be retired before they see any of the future equipment this
It gets worse. Obama also says he also wants fewer contractors.
That means the military will have more difficulty getting
capabilities "off the shelf" to meet immediate needs.
Washington is swirling with rumors that the services are being
forced to put their capabilities on the chopping block to dampen
defense spending. By one account, the Navy may have to cut an
aircraft carrier and an air wing -- that's about 80 aircraft.
The military is already starting to have a hollow ring to it,
and we haven't even seen the White House's first budget.
While the overall Pentagon budget might wind up looking slightly
higher than last year's, take a close look at the part "buying
stuff." Acquisitions will likely take a big whack -- a down payment
on the offset that will leave our troops without the tools they
Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation
and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and
Winning World War II.
First Appeared in The D.C. Examiner
Once upon a time, there was a president who promised to spend less on defense and give us more. And he did--in a manner of speaking.
Protect America Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director
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