Trimming the Fat
How to put the military budget on a diet.
To grasp the magnitude of President Bush's $420.7 billion military budget request, which he submitted to Congress on Monday, let's compare it with the military budget for 1968, the peak year of the Vietnam War. Adjusted for inflation, the budget that year—when a half-million soldiers were fighting in Southeast Asia and a garrison of armored divisions in Europe were still facing Soviet forces along the East-West German border—totaled $428 billion.
It's remarkable enough that Bush's budget seems to be only slightly smaller than that earlier wartime budget, but in fact it's much larger. For Lyndon Johnson's budget included—in fact, was dominated by—the cost of fighting in Vietnam. Bush's budget includes none of the cost of fighting in Iraq. That will be covered in a supplemental, which Bush will request from Congress after the November election.
Officials guess the supplemental will be around $50 billion (the one for this year was $65 billion), but even if it turns out to be just half that sum, the Fiscal Year 2005 military budget will be (again, adjusted for inflation) the largest U.S. military budget since 1952—the peak of the Korean War—and the second-largest since World War II.
It is hard to say which is more remarkable—this calculation or the fact that nobody seems to mind.
Yes, we live in a dangerous world. Yes, we must support our troops with decent pay and the finest hardware. Yes, an uncertain future requires us to maintain an adequate technical and industrial base. But does even a conservative extrapolation of these mandates require spending nearly half a trillion dollars?
An enormous portion of this military budget, quite plainly, has nothing to do with Iraq, al-Qaida, the spectrum of new threats, or the American military's new doctrine of "transformation" and lighter, more mobile forces. Here are some examples:
Stealth aircraft. The Air Force wants $4.1 billion to buy 24 F-22 Raptor "stealth" planes, while the Air Force and the Navy together are requesting another $4.6 billion for research and development of a still newer stealth Joint Strike Fighter. Stealth planes are designed with exotic materials and rounded edges that reduce their visibility to enemy radar—and thus make them less vulnerable to anti-air missiles. This attribute, obviously, comes in handy. On the first night of the last two Gulf wars, F-117 stealth planes penetrated Iraqi air space and launched surprise strikes on key targets—including air-defense batteries—thus paving the way for follow-on echelons of non-stealth attack aircraft.
But the key question Congress should ask is: How much stealth do we need? The Air Force and Navy currently have about 75 stealth planes. Do they really need more? Almost no non-stealthy American airplanes (except for helicopters) have been shot down in recent wars, nor are they likely to be shot down in wars of the foreseeable future. Extremely cheap and reliable "smart bombs" (such as the satellite-guided JDAMs, which the Air Force and the Navy are buying in reassuringly ample quantities) can now be dropped with great precision from planes flying at 10,000 feet—an altitude well beyond the range of anti-aircraft fire. * Who needs to spend all this money for stealth when gravity provides enough protection?
More puzzling still, these new stealth planes are designed primarily for long-range air-to-air combat. Except perhaps for Israel and France, there is not a country in the world that has an air force remotely competitive with U.S. air forces—in personnel, training, or inventory. Of course, this may not stay true for decades to come, but it's wasteful to spend billions now for threats that, at worst, lie way, way beyond the horizon.
Ships and submarines. For the third year in a row, the Navy wants $2.5 billion to build a new Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. It also wants $3.6 billion for three new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and $1.5 billion for a new DD(X) surface combatant ship. These may be nice to have, but—unlike the Army, whose troops truly are stretched thin—the Navy has no gaps in its coverage of strategic sea lanes, especially since there's no other country in the world that has a navy worth the name. The U.S. Navy currently has 55 perfectly capable nuclear-powered attack subs. The only mystery is what their crews do when they go out on patrol. They don't track Soviet subs like they did in the old days, and they don't play cat-and-mouse games with enemy anti-submarine-warfare assets for the simple reason that there are no naval enemies and, if there were, they don't have ASW assets. Similar questions can be directed to much of the U.S. surface fleet.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.