Do we really need all these new weapons systems?

Do we really need all these new weapons systems?

Do we really need all these new weapons systems?

Military analysis.
March 4 2005 12:44 PM

Defense Procurement Follies

Do we really need all these new weapons systems?

Two tidbits this week reveal, more eye-poppingly than ever, that the Pentagon's budget is spiraling out of control.

The first comes from Bloomberg News, reporting that the Defense Department's comptroller told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the cost of weapons procurement will soar by 52 percent over the next six years.

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The second, as reported by the trade journal Inside the Pentagon, is a memo from the military service chiefs to the House Armed Services Committee, noting that the Pentagon's recent budget request—a bountiful $419 billion for Fiscal Year 2006, plus a $75 billion supplemental to the budget for FY 2005—does not include $13.4 billion worth of urgently needed combat hardware.

Let's take them one at a time.

First, the skyrocketing weapons spending that looms just across the horizon. The Pentagon's current budget request—the $419 billion for FY06—contains $78 billion to buy weapons systems, about the same as last year, a fact that some news reports portrayed as a sign that the Defense Department was cutting back on big-ticket weapons sprees.

However, the DoD comptroller testified that, by Fiscal Year 2011, this sum will soar to $118 billion.

Of course, the rest of the budget will grow, too—the $419 billion for FY06 swells to $502 billion in FY11—but not by as much. Currently, procurement amounts to 18 percent of the Defense Department's total budget. Five years from now, this share will rise to 24 percent.

The cause of this spurt is the introduction, over the next few years, of 13 major new weapons programs. They've been germinating in research and development for a while. Now they're getting ready to pop into production.

For instance, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force-Navy "stealth" airplane (a smaller version of the F-22), consumes a mere $150 million in the FY 2006 budget. Next year, in the budget for FY07, the Pentagon will ask $1.3 billion to build the first five planes. In FY08, it will request $3.4 billion for 18 more; in FY09, $6.5 billion for another 47; in FY10, $6.8 billion for an additional 56; and in FY11, $7.2 billion for the next 64.

Leave aside, for a moment, the question of whether the F-35s—or so many of them—are needed. Let's just address their impact on the controllability of military spending.

Most of the government budget is spent right away, mainly for personnel. The Defense Department is one of the few federal departments that invest in large capital projects—planes, ships, tanks, and so forth. Some of these projects take years to build. As a result, their budgets take years to spend.

Take the F-35. According to the Pentagon’s own calculations, just 26 percent of the budget authorized for Air Force aircraft procurement gets spent in the first year of production. Another 45 percent gets spent in the second year, 19 percent in the third, 6 percent in the fourth, and 2 percent each in the fifth and sixth years.

So, if the F-35's budget for Fiscal Year 2009 is $6.5 billion, as the Pentagon currently plans, only $1.7 billion of that will be spent in FY09. Another $2.9 billion will be spent in FY10, $1.3 billion in FY11, and so on, out to FY 2014.

Here's the problem. Just as budgets take years to translate into spending, budget cuts take years to translate into savings. So, let's say that, in 2010, Congress—or a new administration—decides to kill the F-35 in order to slash the deficit or simply to redirect military spending. Killing the F-35 at that point won't have as much effect as some might think. The Pentagon will still be committed to spending $4.8 billion of that $6.5 billion authorized for 2009. This doesn't include further billions that it will be spending from the budgets authorized for 2008, 2007, and 2006. (One way to break out of this trap is to put a stop-order on existing production lines. But no Congress or president has ever dared do this in modern times.)

In short, the more a budget devotes to procurement, the harder it becomes to control the budget in the years ahead.

Now, obviously, the military needs to buy weapons, many of which happen to be expensive. So, the next step is to examine those weapons, one by one, to ask if they're really vital and, if so, how many of them we really need right now.

Which leads to the week's second revealing tidbit—the memo from the service chiefs. This memo is an annual set piece. The House Armed Services Committee asks each of the service chiefs to submit a list of "unfunded requirements"—items that they think they "need" but that didn't wind up in the final budget request. The game was started by Republican congressmen during Democratic administrations; the idea was to give the service chiefs an opening for an end-run—another chance to push the extra ships, fighter planes, bombers, or missiles that those damned civilians in charge of the budget wouldn't let them have.

This year's list, though, looks very different. With few exceptions, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave the chiefs all the big-ticket weapons they wanted. The "unfunded requirements" that the chiefs cite here are more mundane—combat radios, night-vision goggles, unmanned drones: the sorts of things our troops are using right now, things that were cut back to make room for things like the F-35, which they won't need for many years, if ever.

It may be that calculations show the services don't really need more radios, goggles, drones, and so forth than the budget already provides. The armed services committees will no doubt raise that question. (What usually happens, in this political game, is that some items on the list—especially those made in key legislators' districts—get tacked onto the budget, whether they're needed or not.)

But when the committees do ask these questions this year, they should also ask whether we really need, say, the F-35—to cite just one of many dubious programs. (For others, click here, here, and here.) No country on earth has anything approaching the air power or the number of trained air crews to go up against the existing fleet of U.S. fighter planes. A case could be made that we should maintain the "defense industrial base" for advanced aircraft in case the balance of power begins to shift in a decade or so. But, especially when other needs are more pressing, why do the Pentagon and its enablers in Congress need to start building them now?