The past decade of military spending: what we spent, what we wasted, and what we need

Marcus Stanley/US Navy

U.S. Sailors watch as a helicopter lifts off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) in the Pacific Ocean Jan. 17, 2012.

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  • The technological edge our forces have held in the past is at risk for the next generation @meaglen @AEIfdp

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  • Defense budget increases of the past decade have been hollow, lacking next-generation investments

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  • Next-generation programs for the US military now appear out of reach @meaglen @AEIfdp

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As the United States continues its defense cuts—even as U.S. forces are still in harm’s way around the world in places like Afghanistan—many in Washington and across America are scratching their heads, wondering why this is a problem.

“Defense budgets have been growing since 9/11,” the argument goes. “How on Earth can money possibly still be tight?”

The answer is simple. Defense budgets grew after 2001 because they had to. Military spending, size and force structure were cut too deeply after the flawed “peace dividend” was never realized in the 1990s. Many dollars had to then be invested quickly in the U.S. military in order to topple regimes and suppress the insurgencies that followed.

Yet little of the money needed to fight the wars did anything to increase the U.S. military’s cutting-edge capabilities. Funding increases for war-related investments came at the expense of tomorrow.

Indeed, the U.S. military has lost ground in innovation this past decade, accelerating a trend that began in the early 1990s. This means the technological edge our forces have held in the past is at risk for the next generation.

Few want to put our military in harm’s way and when we do, we want to win quickly and with the fewest casualties possible. That is changing based on declining defense budgets. As Washington continues to raid the defense budget, there are real questions as to America’s ability to field and maintain a force that is beyond challenge.

Where did all the money go?

A report by the Stimson Center documents the past decade’s investment in procurement, concluding that far from a null set, many existing systems were, in fact, upgraded with the latest technology. While true, what the report fails to acknowledge is that the last decade’s investments are best analogized to updating your answering machine with smart phone apps. Eventually, you have to design a cutting edge platform from which you can add all the latest technologies.

The report inadvertently highlights the reality that the defense budget increases of the past decade have been hollow, lacking next-generation investments. The U.S. military has mortgaged the future to pay for the wars of today and yesterday in the Middle East.

The center’s report details the small number of hardware programs that together comprise 21% of the military’s procurement budget, despite making up only 1% of line items. Because so much money went into these 14 programs, the report argues that the services have successfully modernized over the past decade.  This presumes that money expended equals capability fielded. The implication is that the military can now, therefore, afford cuts after a decade of high budgets.

A Closer analysis of these programs tells a less rosy story.

The Air Force

Of the five major Air Force programs, for instance, one was a legacy program that yielded a 30-old tanker instead of doubling down efforts on a next-generation replacement; two were drones that still have a majority of their cost still to be paid; another program was killed because of budget cuts; and only one was a program that was truly completed over the course of the decade—the MQ-1 Predator drone.  In sum, technology moves much faster than the Pentagon procurement process.

Over this decade, the Air Force spent $38 billion on 220 fighters, as opposed to $68 billion for 2,063 fighters from 1981 through 1990. Clearly, the Air Force has been getting less bang for its buck today than during the Reagan buildup.  The Stimson report shrugs this off as a conscious choice by the Air Force to buy fewer but more capable fighters.  This argument is simply wrong—the Air Force’s requirements for the F-22 fifth-generation fighter jet were entirely in-line with historic averages for air superiority fighters – one to one.  The service wanted better jets, but it also needed lots of them.

The Air Force initially wanted to buy 700 F-15 fighters. By comparison, the Air Force first wanted 750 F-22s. But over the course of the F-22 program, successive administrations cut the buy from 750 to 648, then 438, 339, 270, and finally, 187 before President Obama terminated production. We did not buy fewer fighters as a result of a coherent acquisition strategy. The Air Force purchased jets because policymakers wanted to cut corners on military spending and the F-22 was an easy target.  The end result is that the Air Force will have to make a tiny fleet—less than a third of the size planned—last just as long.

The Navy

The Navy fared little better than the Air Force in terms of true modernization the past decade. The report highlighted three Navy programs: the Virginia-class attack submarine, the DDG-51 destroyer, and the F/A-18 Hornet.

But all of these programs are already the Pentagon’s “Plan B.”  The Virginia-class sub was designed as a cheaper alternative to the truly dominant Seawolf-class attack submarine. Less than half of the Virginia class was bought over the past decade with the majority of funding still to come. The DDG-51 was a hasty fall-back alternative to the now-canceled next-generation DDG-1000 program. Most of the funding for the DDG-51 was spent prior to 2001. Finally, the Navy did buy most of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornets over the past decade, but these fourth-generation fighters are only stopgap purchases until the Navy can put the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter on its carrier decks. So while the Navy, too, was spending procurement dollars over the past decade, it was mostly buying last-generation’s frames that are increasingly out of date and ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

"Between budget cuts, cost overruns, overweight and risk-averse bureaucracy, ever-growing red tape and regulations, and changing requirements, designs and acquisition strategies, the arsenal of democracy has become a bureaucratic and organizational nightmare."--Mackenzie Eaglen

The Marine Corps

Arguably the Marine Corps fared the best out of all the services in terms of modernization priorities coming to fruition during the 2000s. While its Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was cancelled under President Obama, the Corps completed most of the LPD-17 buy of this amphibious docking platform. The V-22 is a story of more of the same with continued threats to the program’s future and much of this money still to come in the outyears.  On the other hand, the Marine Corps version of the F-35, upon which the Corps’ operational concepts depend, is hanging by a thread.  Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the program “on probation,” and while that’s been lifted, further defense budget cuts would be fatal.

The Army

In comparison to the other services, the Army was able to successfully complete several programs over the past decade. The Army was able to buy improved versions of platforms like the Abrams and Bradley, as well as the relatively new Stryker and even the MRAP vehicles. The problem is that all of these vehicles are effective in a land-based operation, but would probably sit out or serve to support others only during conflict in the Western Pacific.

Unfortunately, the Army continued its abysmal track record at buying truly leap-ahead or next-generation capabilities. In fact, almost every single next-generation Army program has been cancelled, including the vehicle-sensor-networked Future Combat Systems, the reconnaissance helicopter, and the Crusader self-propelled Howitzer.

The End Result

The common denominator between the services since 2001 is that their investment choices were geared towards lower-end conflict.  That was, of course, appropriate for the time, but weapons systems designed for high-end warfare suffered as a result. Compounding the problem is the reality that the services seem to be getting worse at acquiring high-tech systems and have used upgraded legacy programs as a temporary band-aid. While in some cases it has been important to get weapons out the door in the midst of a wartime environment, the unmistakable reality is that the momentum for continued and truly innovative R&D seems to be non-existent across the U.S. military. 

What about the generation after next?

Next-generation programs like the F-22, Future Combat Systems, and the DDG-1000 now appear out of reach. Perhaps even more disturbingly, since many of our cutting-edge investments were thrown out, now the Pentagon is going after the lower-tier but still critical innovative programs like the Joint Strike Fighter (a program only made more important after the dramatically reduced purchase of its air superiority counterpart, the F-22). Considering the large amount of resistance to current “next-generation” systems, who honestly believes we will be able to one day field the generation after next?

The reality is the Congress and White House should not be debating whether to buy fewer fifth-gen Joint Strike Fighters, but instead discussing how to pay for research and development of a sixth-generation fighter. Washington should also be prioritizing dwindling defense dollars to buy a next-generation surface combatant; low-observable capabilities beyond stealth; more capable anti-ship, land attack, and air-to-air missiles; satellite recapitalization; directed energy and electromagnetic weapons; underwater weapons, including an unmanned underwater vehicle; nanotechnology and solid-state and fiber lasers; biotechnologies; and advanced cyber technologies.

The sad but simple fact is that the Pentagon and military services can no longer build new programs.  Between budget cuts, cost overruns, overweight and risk-averse bureaucracy, ever-growing red tape and regulations, and changing requirements, designs and acquisition strategies, the arsenal of democracy has become a bureaucratic and organizational nightmare.

America’s eroding contract with those who serve

The traditional margins of American technological superiority are declining across the services and domains. Those margins—too often taken for granted as a birthright—have helped uphold the implicit contract most Americans have had with the all-volunteer military and ensured our forces were never in a “fair fight.” That contract no longer exists.

Many in the Pentagon once designed systems such as the F-22 to be so powerful that no adversary would ever even consider taking on the United States in a battle in the skies. Just as incumbent politicians in safe districts still amass huge re-election war chests in order to deter potential rivals from running against them, the United States used to invest in programs that made the prospect of taking on Uncle Sam a deadly joke.

That is simply not the case anymore. Instead of staying on the cutting-edge of new defense technologies and innovation, Washington has decided that 40-year old programs will instead suffice for today since the budget continues to shrink. 

History continues to remind us, however, that this has happened before at great consequence to the military and the country. Nations that miss out on revolutionary advances in warfare—such as the British neglect of carrier aviation during the interwar period—end up relegated to the back burner of history, regardless of their previous dominance. If the U.S. is not careful, we may end up in a similar situation, missing the next wave of military technology because we are unwilling or incapable of developing and fielding truly next-generation programs.

"DoD should be investing in future capabilities, but the President’s forthcoming 2013 defense budget will surely kill what little is left of the U.S. military’s modernization agenda."--Mackenzie Eaglen

A choice, not predestination

The decision to abandon investment in the future is a choice. Right now, the military needs to urgently invest in innovation. Congress should be demanding long-range technology road maps, including a science and technology plan and a research and development plan for each branch. These plans should broadly outline future investments, capabilities needed, and requirements beyond Afghanistan and other present-day demands.

The U.S. is quickly losing its monopolies on guided weapons and the ability to project power. Precision munitions and battle networks are proliferating, while advances in radar and electro-optical technology are increasingly rendering stealth less effective. DoD should be investing in future capabilities, but the President’s forthcoming 2013 defense budget will surely kill what little is left of the U.S. military’s modernization agenda.

Congress will likely go along. And there’s plenty of blame to go around.  No one leading DoD has ever told Congress, and by extension the American people, that there is even something that needs to be fixed. (For evidence, see the failed stimulus bill that had not a penny for military modernization even though all the services are facing a backlog of investment.) So when former Secretary Gates mortgaged the future to pay for the present, no one questioned that decision.

But Gates failure of leadership has too often been matched by the Congress.  Efforts by members to reverse cuts or resource programs have gone without support in both Democratic and Republican led congresses.

Cui plagalis

So who will pay the price?  National security and the forces that defend it.  Few political appointees and politicians are accountable for their lack of vision. Washington can say now that the defense cuts of the 1990s gave us a military ill-equipped for counterinsurgencies, lacking body armor and vehicle protection. These same cuts also produced a military too small to actually wage and win two medium-sized conflicts at the same time. But many of the people who made those decisions are now gone or far removed from their recommendations and votes.

If Americans knew that our volunteer military was facing a readiness crisis just as these service members are coming off a decade of unrelenting demands on their time, family, and psyche, they would support sustained defense budgets to buy what is needed to maintain America’s military superiority. But few are telling them the truth.

It has become a truism to suggest that decline is a choice, but it is indeed. When a superpower becomes complacent and stops seeking to innovate, it sacrifices the initiative to other hungrier powers. It’s true in business and it’s true in war. Innovate or die.  It’s time to allow the U.S. military to innovate again at long last.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at AEI

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