D. Dowd Muska


Pentagon Cuts: Wider and Deeper, Please

February 17, 2011

Yippee. They finally defunded the engine that no one wanted.

Well, “no one” isn’t accurate -- the Speaker of the House and GE certainly sought a steady, taxpayer-funded stream of jobs and revenue from an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But a majority of the House, with strong support from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has voted to kill the $450 million boondoggle.

It’s a start. But further progress in the battle to restrain a bloated Pentagon will be much tougher. Unless U.S. military posture shifts from policing the planet to protecting the homeland, the Department of Defense’s spending will remain a key contributor to the nation’s insolvency.

Forget an alternate engine -- some believe that the Joint Strike Fighter’s existence is difficult to justify. The Sustainable Defense Task Force (SDTF), a group of experts assembled by two Republican and two Democratic fedpols, offered a dim assessment of the aircraft in a June report: “Cost growth trends for the F-35 program are beginning to resemble those of the F-22 Raptor. And, like the Raptor, the F-35 Lightning may represent all that is wrong with our weapons acquisition process. The principal advantages of this aircraft over advanced versions of those already in the fleet are supposed to be its stealth characteristics, superior avionics, and capacity to engage opposing fighters at very great ranges. … However, the effort to combine all these features is driving acquisition costs upward and requiring design compromises that will result in an aircraft that is overweight and underpowered.”

Next on the Air Force chopping list: the KC-X, an aerial-refueling tanker. It’s been a disaster since day one, due to bureaucrat snafus and skirmishes between contractors. The SDTF noted that the Congressional Budget Office has proposed a five-year procurement delay while existing tankers, which “still have significant structural life remaining,” are upgraded. Better still: Reduce the need for so much refueling, by bringing the troops home from Japan, South Korea, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.

Enough Air Force-bashing. Now it’s the Navy’s turn. A recent Institute for Policy Studies analysis called the Virginia class of submarines “a weapon looking for an enemy.” The DOD can find enough busy work for the boats already deployed. The manufacture of two additional subs per year -- each has a price tag of $1.8 billion, at least in the current contract -- is outrageously wasteful. On the surface, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is worthy of sinking. The Government Accountability Office, in its 2010 look at the Pentagon’s acquisition of major weapon systems, found that the LCS is 285.9 percent over budget. The Marines can cut back by axing their expensive and unreliable MV-22 Osprey. In Iraq, noted the SDTF, the aircraft achieved “a 68 percent readiness rating, which is below that achieved by older helicopters in theater.”

Perhaps if it weren’t designing, buying, and operating systems that do little to protect the nation, the DOD would more competently manage weapons and equipment that are necessary. Case in point: the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), a group of satellites tasked with scanning the Earth for missile launches. Noninterventionists recognize that the nation needs a reliable and precise early-warning network. But the program has been bungled, horribly. “Originally slated to begin launching in 2002 at a cost of less than $3 billion,” reports Debra Werner of the trade publication Space News, “the initial SBIRS constellation … is now expected to cost around $10 billion.” It’s so late, retired Air Force General Kevin Chilton, formerly the head of U.S. Strategic Command, expressed a strong desire to launch “gap-filler” coverage to ensure that we know if someone’s sending an ICBM our way.

So big a budget, so many bases to close and procurements to halt. But it’s been done before. The ‘90s were a glorious era of demilitarization. In inflation-adjusted terms, between fiscal year 1992 and 1997, the Pentagon’s expenditures plunged by 22.5 percent. Even in the universe of federal spending, that’s real achievement.

Can a similar downsizing be attained again? The realities of America’s defense needs don’t preclude it. The Cato Institute’s Benjamin Friedman and Christopher Preble put it plainly: “Our principal enemy, al Qaeda, has no army, no air force, and no navy.”

In a speech last summer, Admiral Mullen disagreed -- but not about al Qaeda’s niggardly capabilities. “The single-biggest threat to our national security,” he told the Detroit Economic Club, “is our debt.”

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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