What Happened to a Leaner, Meaner Military?
The Pentagon budget again calls for more pricey, big-war weapons than we need.
The Navy also wants $3.2 billion to buy two more Virginia-class submarines (the kind that carry conventional weapons) and $900 million for advanced procurement on yet another. Again, what are the scenarios where more subs are needed?
By contrast, look at some of the weapons that have actually been used in the conflicts of recent years (and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan). For instance, there’s the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), aka the GPS-guided “smart bombs” dropped by high-flying planes with pinpoint precision. These things cost almost nothing. The Air Force and Navy are requesting 4,350 of them at a total cost of $204 million. That’s about $40,000 apiece. Or take the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”). The Pentagon wants $884 million to buy 24 more (about $35 million each).
The point isn’t that the military can get by entirely on smart bombs and drones and that the big things, like subs and aircraft carriers, aren’t needed. The point is that generals and admirals need to start justifying the perpetuation of these big things—many of which are bigger and more gold-plated than they need to be—especially given their price tags in this fiscally tight era.
Much of what’s going on here is sheer momentum. The military machine doesn’t turn on a tight corner. Many senior officers in the defense bureaucracy rose through the ranks in an era when fighter planes, submarines, and aircraft carriers were the driving forces behind the entire military budget and military plans. This takes time to shift.
Another part of what’s going on here is what used to be called “military Keynesianism.” There’s no denying it, contracts to build huge weapons systems mean lots of jobs—way more jobs than building, say, smart bombs and drones. True, it’s one of the most inefficient ways to create jobs. For every $1 billion spent on a weapons program, the government could generate more jobs by spending $1 billion to build nearly anything else. But the U.S. government doesn’t build much else (that would be “socialism”). So especially as jobs are still scarce, it’s unlikely we’ll see huge cuts in shipbuilding yards or aircraft plants.
There are other odd discordances in the budget. For instance, the Army is having its personnel force cut the most drastically; yet the Army’s budget is growing, while the budgets for the Air Force and Navy are shrinking. Why?
In rebutting the critics who say the cuts are too deep, Secretary Panetta and others have pointed out that, even with the Army’s personnel cut (from 562,000 active-duty soldiers to 552,100), it will still be bigger in size than the Army of 2001 (which had 480,000 active-duty soldiers). Two questions here: First, so? Second, why are there as many as 552,100 troops? What are they going to do? This is not a rhetorical question; the Army is hardly obsolete, but its senior officers are at this moment figuring out its mission in the post-Cold War, and now post-Iraq and -Afghanistan, era.
Today the attention is leaning more heavily on the rest of the budget, which is where the fate of the economy—and the election—is more likely to be decided. But after the economy gets better and we’re out of Afghanistan and it’s a little bit politically safe to talk about these things, a serious discussion needs to be had on what the military should be doing, what kinds of weapons it really needs, and how much it needs to spend for 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.