The Pentagon's Outdated Budget Priorities
Why the military would rather fund stealth fighters than soldiers.
Far more than the other services, the Army spends a huge share of its budget—about 40 percent—on personnel. If the Army were to sacrifice its new high-priced weapons (for instance, the elaborate $150 billion Future Combat Systems program) to preserve or expand manpower, it wouldn't have much of a procurement account left.
Nearly all the big-ticket items belong to the Air Force and the Navy. These services aren't experiencing much of a manpower crunch. (Few pilots or sea crews are being killed in Iraq or Afghanistan now.) And, because of the budget-divvying accord, they can't be called on to slash their planes, ships, or submarines to keep the Army flush with soldiers.
Don't expect Congress to break this logjam. Last week, the House and Senate appropriations committees finished their conference on the Fiscal Year 2006 defense bill—and didn't cut back on a single high-profile weapons system.
The administration's overall $77.4 billion procurement budget was cut by a mere $90 million. The F/A-22 stealth fighter plane: fully funded at $3.2 billion for 25 aircraft. The Joint Strike Fighter, another stealth plane: awarded $5 billion in research and development funds, just $200 million less than the administration had requested. The F/A-18E/F fighter: fully funded at $2.75 billion for 42 planes. The Virginia-class submarine and the DDX destroyer: fully funded at $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively. The Littoral Combat Ship: tripled, from the administration's request of $249 million for one ship to $689 million for three.
Are all of these weapons so urgently needed that a few couldn't be delayed a few years (note: not killed, just delayed)? The stealth planes in particular—no other country will pose a threat to U.S. combat aircraft for at least a decade. Is there any reason, besides bureaucratic politics, why, say, half the F/A-22s couldn't be deferred and the $1.6 billion in savings sent over to the Army or the Marines? How about Bush's much-cherished, but utterly unworkable, missile-defense program (fully funded by Congress at $8.8 billion): What would be wrong with transferring, say, $5 billion of that sum to buy extra armor for the troops or fund more tangible homeland security efforts?
Nobody in positions of power is bothering to answer such questions, because there's no forum in the Pentagon where anyone can even ask them.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.