The coming storm

Posted by lex, on March 15, 2008


In the National Journal, Sydney Freedburg, jr. points out the challenges inherent to balancing wartime operations against future capability in the USAF and naval aviation: An increasingly geriatric (and more costly to maintain) force structure:

With the end of the Cold War, defense spending dropped by $42 billion between 1990 and 1994. Some $39 billion of that came out of the research, development, and procurement budget. So, while the military’s expenditures for operations, maintenance, and personnel stayed about level, even as the size of the armed forces shrank, the Pentagon had only about half as much to spend on new equipment.

The services weathered this “procurement holiday” in different ways. The Air Force all but stopped buying combat aircraft while it invested in research and development of a supersonic stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which finally entered full production in 2005. In the meantime, the average age of the Air Force’s fighter fleet doubled, from less than 10 years old in 1991 to more than 20 today. (The Navy’s aircraft fleet has also aged, though not as dramatically as the Air Force’s.) Some major aerospace contractors went under, and some scraped by doing other work for the space, civilian, and foreign-military sectors.

Because the Navy is the sole customer for the “Big Six” shipyards that make all U.S. warships, both politics and preservation of the industrial base called for continuing ship construction, albeit at a markedly lower rate. The Navy made ends meet by retiring older, expensive-to-maintain vessels ahead of schedule, keeping the fleet relatively young at the price of halving its size.

The bottom line for both services, however, was the same: Major new purchases were delayed, stretched out, or cut. This was a stopgap, not a solution. Throughout the 1990s, a growing chorus of defense analysts warned of a coming train wreck, when all of the deferred modernization bills would arrive at once. What they did not expect was that those bills would come due during America’s biggest and most expensive war since Vietnam.

Let us pass for now on such theoretical imponderables as the cost of losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – subjectively the cost of fighting them has been hideously expensive, both in human and material terms. But objectively – leaving aside the cruelly insensate calculus of human suffering – we’ve been running them both (and our recapitalization efforts) on the cheap. And yet it’s very hard to go to Congress and ask for more money for guns when the popular perception is that the butter churn has been laying idle and anyway what about those deficits?

There are two parts to a national budget deficit of course, taxes and spending. Congress has voted to let most of the Bush tax cuts expire, and so we may soon be treated to an object economic lesson in the effects of government taking more money out of the pockets of those that both spend and invest even as a recessionary cycle spins up, right on cue. Which leaves us with spending.

Solving the problem of mushrooming national deficits will not to be found in cuts to military spending accounts – discretionary spending which must each year be proposed by the president and disposed of by Congress. The real money is in so-called “mandatory” spending accounts which are not merely subject to blanket re-authorization year after year, but are also indexed to inflation as a starting point for further discussion. And all this before we figure out what to do with the pig in the social security snake that is the imminent Boomer retirement, far less the taxation – direct or indirect – that will be required to extend health insurance to 46 million people who either can’t afford to pay for it (the working poor), don’t think it a good investment (healthy young people) or are unaware of existing state-run coverage programs (morons). The point is – I think – that mandatory spending is going to continue to rise, whether in existing programs indexed by inflation and salted with fresh pork, or in new programs designed to ameliorate whatever is the next in a series of crises du jour. That bodes poorly for US military recapitalization, for those who care about such things.

Here are two statements which are simultaneously true: 1) We are not spending nearly enough money on defense accounts, 2) We are spending an awful lot of money on defense, nearly half of the world’s total. The real question we should be asking ourselves (as always) is not so much, “how much do we spend?” but, “what is it we expect to accomplish?” Answer the second question and you have answered the first, less whatever “risk” you decide to take on.

Because if our answer is that we cannot afford the force we have, then what we are really saying is that we cannot afford the mission set we have signed up for and it’s time to either 1) swallow our pride (and decimate our industrial base) by buying cheaper kit abroad, or 2) pull back from the away game and see what rushes in to fill the space we leave behind.

Splitting the difference will only lead us to a “hollow force,” and we’ve seen that show before.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Navy, Neptunus Lex, Politics and Culture, USAF

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