Playing Defense: Cutting Military Spending Is Politically Unpopular, but More Dollars Don't Make a Better Army

By Wheeler, Winslow T.; Sprey, Pierre M. | The American Conservative, March 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

Playing Defense: Cutting Military Spending Is Politically Unpopular, but More Dollars Don't Make a Better Army


Wheeler, Winslow T., Sprey, Pierre M., The American Conservative


UNTIL LAST SUMMER, just about everyone on Wall Street was dismissing the indicators of coming financial collapse. Similarly, no one in the lobbyist-infested halls of Congress and the Pentagon wants to see the signposts of our impending defense meltdown. But consider four ugly facts:

* Defense is being showered with more dollars today than at any time since the end of World War II.

* The forces the Pentagon has been buying with those growing dollars have been shrinking steadily since 1946.

* These shrinking forces are more and more antiquated: the average age of our aircraft, ships, and tanks has been increasing relentlessly since the '50s.

* Despite all the extra money, training is shrinking, too. Key combat units are being sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with less and less training.

How did the Bush administration deal with these uncomfortable truths? On their way out of town, they left a five-year plan that exacerbates each of the four harbingers. Re-appointed by Obama and now stuck with that plan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates needs to decide if he wants to be Bush's holdover or morph into Barack Obama's new broom, bringing change to bad old Pentagon ideas, some of them his own.

In his farewell article in last fall's Foreign Affairs and in his welcome-back testimony to the House and Senate in January, Gates decried a defense budget riddled with "baroque" and irrelevant weapons at unaffordable cost. He warned, "the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing."

This is important, perhaps prophetic, rhetoric. But if, like Greenspan's "irrational exuberance," Gates's ringing words remain untainted by action, they will simply mask festering problems. If, on the other hand, he decides to act, his first task must be to control the root of the evil, the money.

To understand, we need only to look at what we've spent and the forces those dollars have bought. According to Defense Department budget plans and records, at over $670 billion for 2009, we will be spending more on the Pentagon than at any point since 1946. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the Pentagon budget is higher today than at its peaks for either Korea or Vietnam--though both of those were far larger than our current wars.

This significantly expanded budget only buys us dramatically shriveled forces. The major combat units that make up our Army, Navy, and Air Force are at their lowest ebb since 1946.

Specifically, at just over ten Army division equivalents, we have the smallest combat Army in the last 60 years, at the highest budget since the end of World War II. For past modern conflicts, there were major Army expansions, but for Iraq and Afghanistan, a very modest plan to add 60,000 soldiers for new combat formations has not even begun to show up in Army records, though the $100+ billion cost has.

Similarly, we now have a smaller Navy, under 300 combat ships, than at any point since 1946, but the Navy's budget is now above the historic norm for the post-World War II era. In the same way, the number of wings of fighters and tactical bombers in the Air Force has collapsed from 61 in 1957 to just ten today. The budget? Also well above the historic norm.

The five-year plan Gates dropped on Obama's doorstep continues this shrinkage, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leaving us with key weapons that are older and scarcer than ever.

Symptoms of our unpreparedness abound: tank drivers get fewer training miles today than they did during the readiness-cutting Clinton administration. Fighter pilots get fewer training hours in the air than during the hollow defense years of the Carter administration. And the latest public readiness ratings reveal that not one major Army combat unit in the U.S. was rated fully ready to go to war--not even the ones sent to battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More money has not solved these problems. …

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