After the Berlin Wall fell, many in Washington believed that the United States had entered an indefinite period of peace. Because of that, the size of the military was cut, first by President George H. W. Bush, and then by President Bill Clinton. In the mid-1990s, the government took what was called a “procurement holiday.” It reduced the modernization budget and the rate at which it bought ships, planes, helicopters, tanks, and other inventory—and these reductions outpaced the personnel cuts.
Stretching Forces, Cutting Back Modernization
Yet as it turned out, the end of the Soviet threat did not bring a lasting peace. To paraphrase Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, history had not ended; it had only been frozen, and in the post–Cold War years it thawed out with a vengeance. The fact is that in the past 20 years the American military has deployed at a far greater rate than was ever the case during the Cold War. America has fought four major regional conflicts—in Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is beginning a fifth such conflict now in Libya. In addition, the military has engaged in a dizzying number of other missions, most of which would have been unthinkable during the Cold War.
The combination of increased deployment, reduced force structure, and underfunded procurement is causing a decline in America’s military capability. The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since 1916. The Air Force inventory is smaller and older than at any time since the service came into being in 1947. The Army has missed several generations of modernization, and many of its soldiers are on their fourth or fifth tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Reserves have been on constant mobilization; many vital programs, such as missile defense, have been cut; and in the past two years, no fewer than 50 modernization programs have been ended.
Immediate Needs Abound
In fact, there are very few major modernization programs that are still actively underway at the Pentagon. As a result, each of the services has pressing needs that are largely unmet:
- The Air Force must replace the fighter inventory, develop new cargo and tanker assets, build a new bomber, and increase long-range strike capability.
- The Navy must increase the number of submarines, sustain the number of aircraft carriers, develop a new cruiser, replace the aviation inventory on the carrier decks, buy more destroyers, and buy out the requirement of new littoral combat vessels.
- The Army must, at minimum, sustain the number of troops at current levels as well as modernize and replace its inventory of fighting vehicles, and procure a next-generation attack helicopter—all supported by a more robust and secure battlefield network.
- The Marines must restore their amphibious landing capability and acquire both Harrier and A-10 replacements, while allotting sufficient funds to fix and replace equipment worn out from a decade of war.
In addition, America’s architecture of space satellites is aging and needs replacement. Cuts to missile defense must be restored. And the Guard and Reserves—both of which are becoming increasingly vital to America’s military capabilities—need refurbished equipment.
It bears repeating that these are not luxuries for the Pentagon. Any program whose value could really be questioned—like the Army’s Crusader platform or the DDG-1000 Destroyer—was ended long ago. The programs now hanging in the balance are platforms without which the United States will lose basic capabilities, such as air superiority, global presence, and amphibious assets.
Defense experts disagree about how much of an increase in the procurement and modernization budget is required to fund these basic needs, but there is a consensus that more funding will be necessary. Secretary Gates has called for an increase in the modernization budget. The Congressional Budget Office has said that the budget is substantially underfunded and that the Department of Defense is underestimating the cost of the plans on their books today.
Earlier this year, a blue-ribbon panel created by Congress, chaired by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, reviewed the strategic plans of the Pentagon. The panel unanimously found that the military cannot defend the vital interests of the United States unless its size is increased and its inventory is modernized. The panel recommended that savings from other parts of the military budget be shifted to recapitalize the inventory. It found that substantially greater defense funding would be necessary and warned explicitly that “a train wreck is coming” for the military unless current trends are reversed.
Washington Spending on Everything Except Defense
Yet Washington is reducing, not increasing, what it had projected to spend for defense. Congress actually cut the Administration’s request for defense in fiscal year 2011—an unprecedented act in a time of war—and President Obama recently opined that an additional $400 billion could be cut from the defense budget over the next 10 years.
These actions have occurred without much debate or discussion, and certainly without the kind of thorough national security analysis that would, in more responsible times, have been thought a prerequisite to major reductions in the defense budget.
Many in Washington who have supported defense cuts have done so in response to large and unsustainable federal deficits. It is certainly true that the pressure on the federal budget is immense, but the reason is that the government has borrowed trillions of dollars over the past few years while somehow managing to neglect its chief constitutional responsibility of providing adequately for the national defense. The $787 billion “stimulus” bill, for example, provided not a dime for military modernization and procurement, even though one-third of that money (spent judiciously over the next five to 10 years) would have reversed the current decline. After the orgy of spending in recent years, it rings hollow for Congress and the President to say there is so little money that our servicemen and women have to use outdated and unreliable equipment.
In any case, Washington is well aware that defense spending is not the cause of the budget crisis. Even if the defense budget were cut a further $400 billion over the next 10 years—the fantasy figure recently thrown out by the President—it would not reduce projected deficits by even 2 percent. Of course there are parts of the Pentagon budget that can be streamlined, but as the Perry-Hadley Commission found, that money should be shifted into the modernization budget.
Sustaining American Presence in the World
Finally, there are some who believe that defense should be cut because America has too many global commitments. To be sure, everyone—especially those with particular concerns about military capability and readiness—would like to reduce the burden on our servicemen and women. But the fact is that over the past 20 years four different Presidents, who represented both major political parties and who entered office with vastly different views about foreign policy, have not only sustained the commitments and missions they inherited but have steadily added to them. In the vast majority of cases, their decisions to deploy American military power were supported by a substantial bipartisan consensus in the Congress.
The best example is the current President. If ever a President were likely, based on his stated views, to reduce the footprint of America’s military in the world, it was Barack Obama; yet during his two years in office, President Obama has continued every mission begun by his predecessors, has increased the number of troops in Afghanistan, and has now ordered a new mission of indefinite scope in Libya.
It is hard not to conclude that America’s global commitments have been undertaken not so much because of the unique foreign policy orientations of the President who ordered them, but because of a shared—if, unfortunately, unarticulated—perception that they were necessary to protect America’s vital interests.
Perhaps that perception is invalid. Perhaps the United States has no vital interest in the global war against terrorism, or deterring Iranian ambitions, or containing Chinese power, or preventing the North Koreans from using their nuclear missiles, or continuing to support NATO, or protecting access to sea lanes and international air space, or any of the myriad other missions performed every day by the American military. But the evidence strongly suggests otherwise, and the worst alternative is the one which America is now pursuing: taking on global commitments without sustaining the capabilities necessary to keep them. That is tremendously unfair to the servicemen and women who protect us, and highly dangerous to the American people. As the Perry-Hadley panel found, it will “lead to an increasingly unstable and unfriendly global climate and, eventually, to conflicts America cannot ignore, which we must prosecute with limited choices under unfavorable circumstances—and with stakes that are higher than anyone would like.”
The Honorable James Talent is Distinguished Fellow in Military Affairs at The Heritage Foundation and served as a U.S. Senator from 2002 to 2007.