The Dragon and the Snakes

Feb. 1, 2004

As the Pentagon prepared to un veil its 2005 budget, the big buzz in Washington was that spending was back at “Cold War levels.”

There was some truth to this claim. Though DOD’s budget dropped for 13 years in a row (1986-98), it now has gone up for six straight years (1999-2004). The 2005 plan, out this month, would push expenditures above $400 billion. While that doesn’t approach the mammoth Reagan outlays of the 1980s, it matches or exceeds some earlier Cold War budgets.

Predictably, critics deemed this excessive. “These are parlous times,” said one skeptic, “but are they that parlous?” Another had evidently forgotten the underfunding of the 1990s, recalling them now as years of “high” military readiness and “prescient modernization.”

If the public as a whole ever develops doubts about the need for expanded defense budgets, it will be a serious problem.

The nation faces an enormous task in preparing its forces to confront new and different—very different—enemies operating on a global front. This is an expensive proposition. It can’t be done without broad support from Congress and the public.

While such support exists today, it can fade quickly. Even the Reagan “buildup,” strictly defined, lasted for just four budget years—1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985. After that, huge deficits and Soviet retrenchment pulled Pentagon spending downward.

Today, that kind of stall-out would be truly dangerous. President Bush’s defense program is a modest one, yet his budgets, far from being lavish, may be insufficient even for the program at hand. Spending must increase for some years to come.

The Pentagon knows this. It plans to raise spending each year for six years, to $484 billion in 2009.

In a recent study, Steven M. Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) found that modernizing the armed forces and maintaining it at high readiness was likely to require $360 billion more than Bush has planned over the next 10 years. (Costs of new wars and occupations are not included.)

The Congressional Budget Office reached a similar conclusion. In October, CBO warned that DOD budgets have to grow by 20 percent just to keep today’s 1.4 million member force from shrinking even further. CBO Director Douglas Holtz–Eaken said, in effect, that Bush budgets need to be 10 percent bigger than Reagan’s.

Half of the hike is needed to cover recent increases in pay and benefits for the volunteer force and half to replace outmoded equipment, he said.

Congress this year appropriated about $74 billion for weapons. The services have said it should be more like $100 billion a year.

For the Air Force, the equipment problem is acute, especially in the aged fighter force. CBO warned that maintaining today’s 20-wing fleet at its current steady-state age requires procurement of 150 fighters per year.

USAF hasn’t bought fighters at that rate for years, and it won’t happen for another decade —if then.

Gen. William J. Begert, commander of Pacific Air Forces, recently told reporters PACAF’s F-15s have not achieved their desired mission capable rate in four years, mostly because of age-related difficulties. Elsewhere, the story is much the same.

USAF’s fleet of KC-135 tankers were designed and built in the Eisenhower years. It should be remembered that the Air Force came up with its doomed plan to lease 100 Boeing KC-767 replacements precisely because it could not, with its current budget, afford the up-front cost of an outright purchase.

The military health care program, though justified, poses big budget problems. The cost, about $14 billion a decade ago, is now running to $28 billion a year and could hit $50 billion in two decades.

Because of high cost, the Bush defense budget does not try to increase the end strength of the hard-pressed armed services. DOD believes it can free up more “trigger pullers” by shifting some military jobs to civilians or contractors, but that, in itself, will be expensive.

In Washington, one often hears that the problem is not that the budget is too small but that the program is too large and thus “unaffordable.” CSBA’s Kosiak, for example, argues DOD could pursue a “more affordable” program, requiring fewer dollars.

The “affordability” argument is hard to make, however. The Bush Administration allocates 3.4 percent of US gross domestic product to defense. That is not an onerous burden.

It is not anywhere close to the Cold War standard. President Reagan in the 1980s devoted six percent of GDP to defense. In the Kennedy years, the figure was nine percent.

War and national security do not come cheap. The Cold War was long and expensive. The Global War on Terror will be no different. The nation has no alternative but to fund the forces that are needed.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has argued for adding $100 billion to annual defense spending. This, he said, would put today’s budgets on a par with those of the Reagan years.

Hunter paraphrased former CIA Director R. James Woolsey’s famous assessment of the strategic situation: “We have killed the big dragon—that is, we have disassembled the Soviet Union—but there are lots of poisonous snakes out there.”

For some years after the collapse of Soviet power, it was fashionable in certain political circles to say that hawks—defined as anyone who saw a need to maintain a strong military—just didn’t get it. They didn’t realize the Cold War was over.

Somebody needs to tell the critics that the post-Cold War is over, too.