Missile defense. One of the Pentagon's budget documents released today, "Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System," seems to show a slight cut in what was once the president's most cherished program, from $9.4 billion in FY 2007 to $8.9 billion in FY 2008. But a closer look reveals that the real total is $10.8 billion—a slightly smaller cut from last year's real total of $11 billion. (For details, click
The point is, President Bush still wants to spend a gargantuan sum of money for missile defense—far more than for any other military program in the budget. This document also notes that by 2008 the number of actual deployed interceptors—missiles designed to shoot down missiles—will rise from 28 to 70. And yet, despite decades of development, this system is not remotely operational. Various elements of the system have had an uneven test record; the system as a whole has not been tested at all.
The Pentagon used to have a standard for weapons systems: "test before buy." They still do, for every weapons system except missile defense. This standard was made law several years ago by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is now chairman of the Senate armed services committee. Maybe he can make the law universal.
Stealth fighters. The budget includes $4.6 billion to buy 20 F-22 Raptor fighter planes and $6.1 billion to buy 12 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Both are "stealth" planes, meaning they are contoured in a way to deflect (or minimize the reflection from) anti-air radars—thus making them if not entirely invisible, then extremely difficult to shoot down. The F-22 has a limited ability to hit targets on the ground, but it was designed mainly to shoot down enemy fighter planes from far distances. The F-35 is mainly a ground-attack plane.
The Pentagon plans to buy 177 F-22s at a total cost of more than $65 billion (measured in real 2005 dollars). Plans for the F-35 are a bit shakier, but they hover around 2,500 aircraft costing more than $100 billion.
Right now, no prospective enemy can shoot down our non-stealthy planes. We already have a handful of F-35s, dozens of F-22s, and a few dozen stealthy B-1 and B-2 bombers. Certainly we could at least postpone further production and use the money to address more urgent threats (or simply to save the money).
Ships and submarines. The budget requests $3.1 billion for a new aircraft carrier, $2.7 billion for a new Virginia-class submarine, and $3.4 billion to complete construction of two new DDG-1000 (formerly "DDX") destroyers. It's hard to leave the cruisers half-built, but do we really need another nuclear-powered carrier and submarine? The U.S. Navy is not stretched beyond its capacity (unlike, say, the Army); there is no maritime mission it can't fulfill; no other country has a navy that's remotely threatening. Again, do we really need these things now or, for that matter, over the next decade or so?
This is all a game of funny money to begin with. We could hardly afford any of these things, vital or not, if the Chinese stopped underwriting our debt. It's a bit much, under the circumstances, to spend tens of billions of dollars on threats that some analysts foresee 20 years beyond the horizon and that are, at most, hypothetical even then.
Just because something is in the defense budget doesn't mean it's really needed for defense. By the same token, cutting the defense budget doesn't necessarily degrade defense. It's time to draw distinctions, make choices, and sharpen the knives.