As Good As it Gets?

April 1, 2003

Even as US forces massed for war with Iraq, influential critics blasted President Bush’s new defense budget. Some described it as “mammoth.” The ever-reliable New York Times, espying yet another “spending spree at the Pentagon,” said DOD “seems to glory in its excesses.” The St. Louis Post–Dispatch saw signs that the nation was turning into a “New Rome.”

Bush did increase the budget—by 2.2 percent. Some spree.

It is now fashionable to say defense spending has returned to “Cold War levels.” Well, not quite. President Bush’s 2004 defense plan, unveiled Feb. 3, allocates $380 billion for the military. In the Reagan years, spending averaged well above $400 billion. At its 1985 peak, the DOD budget exceeded today’s by $80 billion.

The Cold War isn’t a valid reference point, anyway. That struggle centered on the superpower nuclear balance, and nuclear arms are cheap compared to conventional forces. The US never tried to match the Soviet Union tank for tank, fighter for fighter. If it had, the cost would have been stratospheric.

In a way, today’s threat exceeds that of the Cold War. Each actual or potential US foe—Iraq, al Qaeda, North Korea, Iran—could, given enough time, send a US city up in a mushroom cloud. Each is capable of making a cold-blooded decision to do so.

When one assesses Bush’s new defense plan in this context, it is hard to conclude that Washington is overdoing things.

Nothing has been done to remedy massive force cuts levied in the 1990s, when it seemed that greatly reduced US forces would be sufficient to handle any problem. The number of USAF fighter wings fell from 36 to 20, active Army divisions from 18 to 10, Navy warships from 546 to 306. Active strength dropped from 2.2 million to 1.38 million.

Today, this small force is badly stressed by numerous demands. Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, says that “our people have been sprinting for a long time.” The Air Force has had to pull 23,000 airmen from future rotation packages to meet current commitments. As for the Army, 220,000 of its soldiers are overseas. The Navy says 195 of its 306 ships are under way, including six of its 12 carrier groups. Two-thirds of Marine operating forces are deployed.

For the Guard and Reserve, the story is much the same. The call-up of 177,000 reservists is straining many communities.

The services are scrapping older but serviceable weapons to scrape together funds to buy new ones. The Air Force plans early retirement for 114 F-15 and F-16 fighters, 33 B-1B bombers, and 115 cargo and tanker aircraft. The Navy plans to mothball 26 ships ahead of schedule.

Even this won’t make a dent in the problem of aging equipment. Army helicopters now average 18.6 years of age. Two-thirds of the Navy’s aircraft are more than 15 years old. The average age of USAF tankers is 37 years. For the entire Air Force fleet of 6,300 aircraft, the figure is 22 years, the highest in history.

The cost of keeping old aircraft flying has jumped. “We are looking at costs of repairing these aircraft rising at more than 10 percent a year,” says Jumper.

Modernization is crimped. The 2004 budget requests $72.7 billion for procurement of weapons. This is $20 billion less than what is needed to sustain the force, much less expand it.

A serious mismatch between US strategic ends and military means developed during the Clinton Administration, and it persists.

The US military would be spread thin were war to erupt in Korea. The confrontation with Iraq and War on Terror have stretched US military resources to the max. Senior military officers say forces fighting in Korea would be hamstrung by shortages of airlift, AWACS, tankers, and reconnaissance aircraft.

Responding to these pressures, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R–Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wants to add two more fighter wings, 50 more stealth bombers, and more C-17 airlifters. Rep. John M. McHugh (R–N.Y.), who heads the panel’s total force subcommittee, argues, “We need more men and women in uniform.”

In a Jan. 23 letter to President Bush, a group of conservative defense experts said spending had to rise by at least $70 billion a year in order to meet global obligations.

The conditions are there for truly substantial spending increases. The nation has a strongly pro-defense President and Congress. The threats are numerous and undeniable. By historical standards, the burden of defense spending on the economy is low.

Bush and Congress have rammed through several important and much-needed defense spending increases, for which they deserve great credit. Still, Washington has resisted the kind of buildup that seems not only prudent but essential, and the force continues to struggle along.

President Kennedy spent nine percent of GDP on defense. President Reagan spent six percent. As recently as 1994, President Clinton allocated four percent, and that was before the US came face to face with a global war on terror and serious crises in two hot spots. Today, the figure is 3.4 percent.

In a recent film, a character played by actor Jack Nicholson finds himself in a psychiatrist’s office surrounded by anxious patients, all hoping that treatment will help them get well. He adds immeasurably to their unhappiness by asking a simple but piercing question: “What if this is as good as it gets?”

The armed forces need help. We can only hope this is not as good as it gets.