The Pentagon's out-of-touch budget priorities.

Military analysis.
Dec. 22 2005 6:13 PM

The Pentagon's Outdated Budget Priorities

Why the military would rather fund stealth fighters than soldiers.

Do the Pentagon chiefs pay any attention to the lessons they say they've learned? Judging from reports coming out of the Defense Department's current budget and policy reviews, the answer can only be: No.

One lesson of the Iraq war, accepted by nearly everyone now, is that the U.S. military, especially the Army, doesn't have enough troops to occupy a country for very long while fighting off insurgents and trying to establish order.

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Earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England signed a directive declaring, "Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission. … They should be given priority comparable to combat operations" in all Defense Department activities, "including doctrine, organizations, training, education, exercises, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and planning."

At the very least, this directive—which amounts to an official acknowledgement of the Iraq war's mistakes—will require more military manpower if it's to be a statement of policy and not just a smattering of nice words.

And yet, according to a story by Tom Bowman in the Dec. 21 Baltimore Sun, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is planning to cut the Army's forces by 34,000 troops. That would entail eliminating one active-duty brigade and six National Guard brigades. (The latter aren't trivial; nearly half the U.S. combat units in Iraq come from the National Guard.)

Budget pressures are forcing Rumsfeld to cut Pentagon spending by $32 billion over the next five years. But why is he taking his biggest whacks against the tokens of combat power—boots on the ground—that are, by his own admission, most vital? The Sun reports:

The manpower cuts stem from a decision by top Army leaders to sacrifice troop strength in order to provide money for new weapons systems and other new equipment, said defense officials, who requested anonymity.

So, not much has changed after all. We've been fighting a war that's costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The Pentagon's upper management at least says it realizes that "stabilization operations" (read: low-tech, high-manpower ops) are extremely important. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, leans toward this sentiment as well, having risen through the ranks in the Special Forces command. And yet, when it comes to setting priorities on how to spend money, the procurement chiefs—with their eyes on big-ticket weapons systems—still rule.

The problem isn't entirely with the Army brass. It's with the whole back-scratching collusion that the three services—Army, Navy, and Air Force—devised decades ago to stave off their natural tendencies toward explosive internecine rivalry.

Trace the military budget back a quarter-century. You will find that each and every year, no matter what kinds of threats we were or weren't facing, the money has been divvied up in the same way—35 percent to the Air Force, 35 percent to the Navy, and 30 percent to the Army. In no year, at least since the mid-1980s, has this formula varied by more than 1 percent. (The figures do not include costs related to the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, which come out of budget supplementals.)

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.

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