The Pentagon Budget Calls for More Big-War Weapons. What Happened to a Leaner, Meaner Military?

Military analysis.
Feb. 13 2012 7:29 PM

What Happened to a Leaner, Meaner Military?

The Pentagon budget again calls for more pricey, big-war weapons than we need.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images.

After two earlier rollouts—the announcement of a new “defense strategic guidance” on Jan. 5 and the top-line numbers for the new defense budget three weeks later—the Pentagon today finally released its actual budget request for fiscal year 2013, with all the details attached. When you read through the mountain of pages and appendixes, a curious discrepancy sticks out.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

There is a mismatch between the defense strategy and the defense budget. The strategy emphasizes a “leaner, meaner” military, with more emphasis on small-scale campaigns, special-ops forces, and unmanned aircraft. But the budget lays out the usual bounty for large-capital, big-war weapons systems.

This isn’t necessarily a contradiction. No strategy or budget should bet all of its resources on one scenario. The world is an uncertain, dangerous place; it only makes sense to hedge bets, and some hedges are unavoidably expensive. Still, the balance between preparing for the likely and hedging for the unlikely is getting a bit out of hand—I suspect mainly for reasons of bureaucratic politics and economics.

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Take the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the stealth plane that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates boosted when he halted production of its bigger cousin, the F-22. The program has been out of hand for some time—management problems, huge cost-overruns, substantial performance shortfalls. Yet at the rollout of the basic outlines of the defense budget on Jan. 16, the current secretary, Leon Panetta, said he was going ahead with the F-35 anyway, with only minor cutbacks.

Today’s budget reveals just how minor. Last year, the Air Force and Navy, which operate the program jointly, bought 31 of the planes for $9.7 billion. This year, they’re buying 31 for $9.2 billion. For next year, the Pentagon proposes to buy 29 for $9.2 billion. It’s a cut, a slight one, in the number of planes, but no cut at all in the money spent, because the cost of each plane is going up. (It’s now a little more than $300 million.)

It’s time to ask a more basic question, the same one that Gates asked of the F-22: How many expensive, hugely complex, overdesigned, short-range fighter planes do we really need? The question becomes especially pertinent when the budget reveals that the Pentagon wants to spend $800 million to improve the 183 F-22s that already existed when Gates stopped the production line and $2.2 billion to buy 26 more advanced F/A-18 fighter-attack planes—an old model, but they keep improving it and building more.

Gates kept, and accelerated, the F-35 when he halted the F-22, in part on the old chestnut that you can’t kill something with nothing. To the Air Force brass (and to legislators in the 46 states where the program’s subcontracts were shrewdly spread out), the F-22 was the most cherished program in the entire budget. So Gates let them keep the F-35 (which used a lot of the same subcontractors). Now it’s worth asking whether there is a substantive need for this plane.

Another example, where the Pentagon has made a partial compromise: the nuclear-weapons complex. The Navy had been planning to move ahead with development of the SSBN(X), a program to build a new nuclear-missile submarine when the current Trident subs begin to outlive their lifespan in 2027. The budget pushes the onset of this development back by two years. The statement accompanying the budget declares this delay “a manageable risk.” (That’s an understatement.) The savings from this delay are considerable: $600 million next year and $4.3 billion over the next five years.

Most of the nuclear-weapons programs are not in the Pentagon’s budget but rather in the “Atomic Energy-Defense” account of the Department of Energy. The amount requested for this account next year is $17 billion. Surely there are other “manageable risks” to be had by cutting this hefty sum. Letting half of the nuclear arsenal rot would have no effect on our ability to deter a nuclear attack.

There’s also $781.7 million for the first year of construction on a new nuclear aircraft carrier (they usually take about five years to build). Does the Navy really need 11 carriers to perform all its missions? And are all those missions necessary? Carriers are expensive enough; but each carrier, besides carrying a lot of planes and sailors, is but the lead ship of a “carrier battle group,” which includes a complement of cruisers, destroyers, and other ships, all of which are also expensive.