March 25, 2003 | News Releases on National Security and Defense

Analyst Maps Out Ways to Give U.S. Troops More of a Fighting Chance

WASHINGTON, MARCH 24, 2003-U.S. officials shouldn't let the fact that American forces are performing well in Iraq blind them to the need for a modernization strategy that will leave the United States better prepared to handle the many missions it may be asked to undertake in the next few years, says a new paper from The Heritage Foundation.

"As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, we're perfectly capable of doing what's necessary now," notes Heritage senior security analyst Jack Spencer. "But we can't assume this state of affairs will continue indefinitely, especially if we're asked to do more. There are several steps we need to take to ensure we're just as prepared tomorrow as we are today."

For starters, Spencer says, Congress can and should spend more on defense. The 2004 budget is $340 billion, but that accounts for only 3.4 percent of gross domestic product-below historic norms of 4 percent or more throughout much of the last century. "We can't adequately protect American interests on the cheap," he says.

But there's little point spending more money unless we assure that it's spent well, Spencer says, which means setting priorities-deciding, for example, to reduce peacekeeping commitments and other non-combat activities and shifting the resources we save to fill more urgent requests.

"We're pursuing a war on terrorism, waging war in Iraq, keeping our allies safe and striving to protect the homeland," he says. "Yet we still have 8,000 military personnel in the Balkans? Like it or not, we can't do everything, and it would be foolhardy to try. Sometimes, you have to say no."

That's especially true when, as Spencer notes, the United States is trying to meet new threats with "a force that's unacceptably old. We've got 76 B-52s right out of the 1950s, 93 aging B-1s, and only 21 modern B-2s. The Air Force has no plans to buy a new bomber until 2037, when the B-52 will be nearly 90 years old."

Now more than ever, he says, defense officials must work to ensure that every dollar spent enhances our ability to fight and win wars. "Using combat soldiers in non-combat missions is not only a waste of personnel but a waste of money-draining money that could have been spent modernizing our forces," he says.

It's also crucial, according to Spencer, that policy-makers take a hard look within the defense budget itself. "Something's seriously wrong when the 2003 budget has $25 million going to Kaho'olawe Island Fund and $19 million going to the International Sporting Competition, but we can't afford to reopen the B-2 bomber production line," he says. It would help, too, he adds, if we accelerate the next round of base closings.

When it comes to deciding how to modernize weapons systems, Spencer says, the mission is clear: Acquire new technology that allows weapons to operate with less support. The development of hybrid engines and fuel cells, for example, would mean we could support field operations with fewer refuel vehicles. Sensors and networked information systems would allow fewer people to cover larger swaths of territory.

In the air, the Heritage analyst says, we need more conventionally armed B-2s, which could go into production fairly quickly and-at $750 million a copy-relatively inexpensively. He also suggests, among other things, that the Air Force accelerate production of smaller, more accurate "smart" bombs, and speed up production of the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, which can hit targets without endangering a flight crew.

On the ground, Spencer says, the Army should reinvest the funds it will save from 24 cancelled programs into two major families of "platforms": the Stryker light armored vehicle and the Future Combat System. Both would bring greater capability to the battlefield, he says, and free manpower that's needed to fulfill the homeland-security mission.

By 2020, the U.S. force should rely not on 1970s-era tactical aircraft but on modern manned tactical aircraft, unmanned combat vehicles, and long-range precision strike missiles, Spencer says: "By making smart investments and eliminating waste, our forces can improve their ability to fight today's wars and make them better prepared for tomorrow's."

"NEXIS" on-line-data-retrieval service subscribers also can access Heritage studies. Heritage Foundation reports (HFRPTS) can be found in the OMNI, CURRNT, NWLTRS, and GVT group files on the NEXIS library and the GOVT and OMNI group files of the GOVNWS library.

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