June 9, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Obama: 'Yes' to Bailouts, But 'No' to Defense?

President Obama is not a totally profligate spender. But his selectively-parsimonious approach disturbs many who want to maintain a strong national defense.

Almost half of Obama's budget cuts are to defense. All are then plowed back into spending increases elsewhere. This is the first wartime "peace dividend."

And the cuts are being imposed without any analytical support. defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "[We] finance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead." But what are those scenarios?

Congress requires a "Quadrennial Defense Review" to answer that question with precision, and demands the defense Department base its budgets on the QDR results. But the 2009 QDR hasn't been done yet.

It's not safe to be cutting and slashing in the dark. Recent nuclear and missile tests in North Korea and Iran show we need the very systems that are being cut. Obama's focus is on fighting insurgents such as in Afghanistan and Iraq rather than conflicts with regular armies or against modern missiles.

Obama's initial cuts to 50 defense programs would grow progressively worse year-by-year. As defense News reported May 11, "the Office of Management and Budget has signaled the [defense] department should prepare for budgets that grow only 1% a year to adjust for inflation." Of course, inflation far exceeds 1%.

For less than the cost of a major bailout, Obama and the Congress could assure proper funding of America's military and defense. According to Heritage Foundation defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen,a $27 billion increase in FY2010 defense spending would meet the minimum necessary benchmark -- bringing defense spending back to 4% of the national GDP. To go beyond the minimum and keep modernizing our military, former Sen. Jim Talent (R,-M.), wrote in National Review that we must close a $50 billion gap.

Either way, it's less than what Washington has spent in less than a year on automaker bailouts.

President Obama claims his reductions aren't risky, but so did President Bill Clinton when he consistently sought to underfund the military. Both then and now, the Pentagon saluted their commander-in-chief and publicly supported his numbers. The then-Republican Congress repeatedly boosted Clinton's requests. Today, with liberals such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in charge, it will take bipartisan effort to undo Obama's cuts.

What is on the chopping block? The ability to engage in conventional warfare. The reductions are mostly in capability to deter or defeat major threats, such as North Korean or Iranian nuclear missiles, or a growing navy such as China's, or a nation with sophisticated aircraft such as Russia's. For example:

The F-22 Raptor. This highly-expensive fighter is also incredibly capable, easily surpassing any other fighter in the world. Our only other new fighter, the F-35, is still at least five years away from first deployment. The Air Force says it needs more F-22s, but it's terminating production to meet Obama's budget targets. In a Washington Post column, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley explained:

...last summer [we] concluded that 243 aircraft would be a moderate-risk force. ... [But] purchasing an additional 60 aircraft to get to a total number of 243 would create an unfunded $13 billion bill just as defense budgets are becoming more constrained.

If 243 F-22s are a "moderate risk" isn't Gates' plan for only 187 a higher risk? And let's not forget what risk means: it means that lives and wars will be lost.

The C-17 Globemaster. As the only wide-body U.S. military cargo aircraft still in production, only it can deliver an M-1 Abrams tank or Apache helicopter to a dirt airfield. It flies 80 percent of all strategic airlift missions. Obama's Pentagon will shut down production later this year.

shipbuilding. The U.S. Navy is key to projecting American power around the world. Yet despite legal requirements to submit an annual shipbuilding plan, the Obama administration did not. Says Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), "At a time when China is rapidly closing the 23-ship gap between their navy and ours . . . the Department of Defense cannot or will not produce a key plan for the future of our naval fleet."

Although it (so far) lacks carriers, China's 62 nuclear subs are only nine fewer than America's. The U.S. Navy states it needs 313 ships at a minimum. It now has 283, only 251 of them in active commission. Obama has delayed indefinitely the next-generation CG(X) cruisers -- an upgrade of the current Aegis systems which would defend against both air and ballistic missile attacks.

Missile Defense. Despite the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles -- especially the efforts in North Korea and Iran -- Obama is ending the Multiple Kill Vehicle Program and cancelling the second Airborne Laser prototype aircraft. Anyone doubting the need for these should visit www.33minutes.com to get the facts.

FCS (Future Combat System) Vehicles. Cancelled. These originated with former Gen. Eric Shinseki -- now Obama's Secretary of Veterans' Affairs -- who saw we needed a lighter, faster-responding Army. The system would have created a common chassis for artillery, infantry troop carriers, battlefield assault vehicles and others components, replacing older units worn down by years of major combat operations. It was intended to enable fewer troops to handle missions, and to save billions of dollars in maintenance, fuel, and personnel costs.

The Good. Not all the decisions from Obama's budget-driven Pentagon are bad. The increase in purchase and use of UAV's -- Unmanned Aerial Vehicles -- is the right thing to do. So was cancelling the grossly-inflated VH-71 Presidential helicopters -- but tendencies toward bloat and excess still must be avoided as that program is re-visited.

Interestingly, while Obama emphasizes "saving or creating jobs" in almost every other area, he won't apply it to the defense sector where his decisions will cause layoffs for tens of thousands of defense workers. Once those production lines close and people scatter, that cutting-edge expertise can be lost forever.

When we lose highly-capable workers on our national defense homefront, we lose the military advantage that high-tech weapons give us. Without a strong defense industrial base, America is weakened and our troops are more at-risk.

Other presidents used the motto, "Peace Through Strength." Obama's is closer to "Less Is More."

But as our military leaders will admit, you can't do more with less. You can only do less with less.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First Appeared in Human Events