April 23, 2009 | Commentary on Federal Budget, National Security and Defense

Elephants in the Room: Of Course the Pentagon Cuts are About Budget Pressure

It is always a hard thing to watch honorable and intelligent people torture themselves to avoid acknowledging the obvious. Unfortunately, the contradictions and incoherence of America's defense policy are beginning to make everyone involved in it look silly.

Here is the latest example.

On April 6, Secretary of defense Bob Gates announced that he was recommending a number of cuts in major defense programs. At the beginning of his remarks, Secretary Gates made a point of insisting that his recommendations were not the result of pressure to cut defense spending:

"My decisions have been almost exclusively influenced by factors other than simply finding a way to balance the books or fit under the 'top line' -- as is normally the case with most other budget exercises. Instead, these recommendations are the product of a holistic assessment of capabilities, requirements, risks, and needs for the purpose of shifting this department in a different strategic direction. Let me be clear: I would have made all of the decisions and recommendations announced today regardless of the department's top-line budget number."

A week later, the Department of Defense fired its first salvo in support of the recommendations of its chief. Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post defending Gates's decision to end procurement of the F-22 air-superiority fighter at 183 planes and close the F-22 production line. They had a difficult task, since it was only last summer that the same two men had vigorously argued that without at least 60 additional F-22s, the Air Force could not perform its air-dominance mission. And air dominance is the cornerstone mission of the Air Force. Unless the skies are cleared of enemy fighters, the rest of America's military, including bombers, non-stealthy strike fighters, ground forces, and naval vessels, cannot operate safely.

Donley and Schwartz began their op-ed by conceding what could not be denied: that the F-22 was "the most capable fighter in our military inventory" -- the only American fighter that can hold its own against advanced Russian- and Chinese-built fighters, which will remain in production for years to come -- and that they had indeed, less than a year ago and after a thorough review of global risks, concluded that increasing the F-22 inventory from 183 to 243 was necessary to America's national military strategy. Then they got to the heart of their argument: that the Air Force could simply not undertake the cost of buying more F-22's because "defense budgets are becoming more constrained."

"This decision has increasingly become a zero-sum game. Within a fixed Air Force and overall defense Department budget, our challenge is to decide among many competing needs. Buying more F-22s means doing less of something else. In addition to air superiority, the Air Force provides a number of other capabilities critical to joint operations for which joint warfighters have increasing needs. These include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control, and related needs in the space and cyber domains."

In other words, one week after the secretary of defense absolutely, positively denied that budgetary pressure had anything to do with his decision to shut down the F-22 line, the two men who run the Air Force defended that decision on the basis of budgetary pressure.

No one should blame Donley and Schwartz. They were simply trying to rationalize a policy that bears no relationship to reality. That happens all the time in Washington, but in this case it is impossible. The elephants in the room have become too numerous and too restless to ignore.

First, the United States has been underfunding our military's procurement and modernization accounts for the last 16 years. As a result, the force has rusted; much of its equipment is old, unreliable, or worn out. Among all the services, the Air Force has the most exhausted inventory. Its main bomber and tanker aircraft are more than 50 years old and, under current plans, will be 80 years old before they are replaced; the average age of its entire inventory is almost 25 years -- three times what it was during the Vietnam era. The other services have needs that are almost as great. (For an in-depth discussion of the issue, see my cover story in National Review.)

Second, the threats facing the United States include terrorism, rogue states that have or soon will have nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile capabilities to deliver them, and regional superpowers (what the Pentagon calls "peer competitors"), such as Russia and China, that have aggressive national ambitions. Other concerns include genocidal regimes, aggressive and violent drug cartels, failing states in crucial parts of the world, and piracy.

Moreover, in virtually every category of risk, the dangers are demonstrably growing: China has built a huge nuclear-submarine base. Beijing has been acquiring Russian-built carrier-killer missiles for years and is now developing its own long-range variants. Russia invaded Georgia last August, Iran gets closer to a nuclear military capability every day, North Korea is developing a longer-range missile, the bipartisan Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction unanimously found last December that the terrorists would have a nuclear or biological weapon within five years, northern Mexico is growing closer to anarchy because of drug cartels, the piracy threat has obviously become a major concern -- the list is long.

Gates has repeatedly and correctly referred to non-military tools of national influence -- what he calls "smart" or "soft" power -- that should be used in dealing with some of these dangers. Techniques include communicating effectively about American intentions, helping failing states build economic and political institutions, engaging in consistent public diplomacy, building alliances, improving interagency cooperation, and constructive engagement. But many of these tools will not work except in partnership with the armed forces; it is impossible, for example (as America has found in Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan) to build democracy in the absence of security. And the foundation for all of the smart-power options, many of which I support, is the world's confidence in the willingness and ability of the United States, as the animating force in a free-world consensus, to swiftly and effectively defeat, contain, or deter violent threats to its security, its vital interests, or its allies. Security, and the stability it yields, is the foundation for all positive development, whether that is the effective use of foreign aid or the steady movement toward representative forms of government across the globe.

The position in which America finds itself was not only foreseeable, but was foreseen. Beginning in 1993, a small group of congressmen on the Armed Services Committee began warning that America was not modernizing its forces. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) and Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) are still sounding the alarm today. But with the exception of Newt Gingrich, who as speaker fought for funding increases, the warnings have gone unheeded. The unexamined assumption of those who had the ultimate authority was that America could not afford to fund its military adequately.

That assumption was never valid; after the recent orgy of government spending, it is laughable. In the last few months, according to CBO estimates, the Obama administration has obligated the American people to $10 trillion in additional debt over the next ten years. For a small fraction of that money, America's servicemen and women could have been given the modern equipment they need to protect their country. Yet none of the money was spent to sustain America's military capabilities -- an act of negligence that history will neither understand nor forgive, and one that is doubly incomprehensible given the Obama administration's stated desire to stimulate the economy through government spending.

How can the administration possibly claim Keynesian justification for throwing money at every government agency except the military? No one could credibly argue that doubling the budget of the Department of Energy creates jobs, but buying ships or planes built by American workers in American industry does not.

The last three presidents of the United States, including President Obama, have been elected on domestic-policy platforms. President Obama is hampered not only by inexperience but by ideology; as a man of the Left, he has an inherent distrust of the necessity and credibility of American power. Fortunately, crisis is an effective teacher; over time the responsibilities of the presidency will begin to trump Obama's ideological preconceptions in his own mind. But America does not have time to wait while the president slowly climbs the learning curve.

If Gates and his assistants have any loyalty to their commander-in-chief, they will tell him the truth: The failures of his predecessors have left him no choice but to seek a double-digit increase in the defense budget and use the money to modernize America's military inventory. On this issue at least, Barack Obama must for his own sake find a way to act like Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, his foreign policy is finished. Reality, which is beginning to bite all over the world, will devour him, and us.

Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He has 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.

About the Author

Jim Talent Distinguished Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in National Review Online