Revelations and Moonshine

Sept. 1, 1994

Secretary of Defense William J. Perry has dropped the pretense–which the Clinton Administration had been pushing for the past year–that the United States is ready to fight two major regional conflicts, nearly simultaneously. Testifying to the Senate July 12, Mr. Perry admitted that the Pentagon cannot handle two concurrent conflicts “with the force structure laid out right now,” even though that is the standard prescribed by the national defense strategy.

The only real news about Mr. Perry’s statement was that he said it. The inability of the armed forces to carry out the strategy has been an open secret for months. Nevertheless, Mr. Perry sought to temper his admission with several creative explanations.

The plan all along, he claimed, was to build toward a two-conflict capability by adding “enhancements” over time. No need to worry about capabilities that are missing now. The requirement was never regarded as immediate anyway, he said. The United States has several years to get its two-conflict strategy together, Mr. Perry said, and “we’re counting on that.”

With all due respect to Mr. Perry, that is not the way the story was told before, and it is not what the public was promised. Eighteen months ago, the Clinton Administration rashly cut the defense program without first calculating the consequences. When the options were priced out, it was obvious that the radical reductions had gone too far.

The preferred military posture was a capability to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. According to the strategists, however, that meant a force that included twenty-four Air Force fighter wings, twelve active Army divisions, and twelve aircraft carriers. Not affordable, the accountants said. The force cuts had to go lower to meet the predetermined budget ceiling.

Mr. Perry’s predecessor, Les Aspin, tried to bridge that gap with a bargain-basement concept called “Win-Hold-Win.” It provided for full military response to only one regional contingency at a time. Mr. Aspin was unable to build any support for his proposal, and within weeks, the whole idea was blown away by criticism and ridicule. On June 24, 1993–without solving the basic problem of insufficient funding–the Pentagon promulgated the two-conflict strategy, which it now acknowledges it cannot fulfill. When Mr. Perry claims that “we never envisioned that we would get involved in two major regional contingencies,” he is skirting the position that Mr. Aspin found untenable in his Win-Hold-Win period.

A year ago, Air Force Magazine concluded that the Clinton defense budget would not fund the two-conflict strategy and said that it even looked too short to support a Win-Hold-Win posture. In recent months, estimates of the budget shortfall had ranged as high as $100 billion. The latest estimate, delivered August 1 by the General Accounting Office, is that the defense program will be short by at least $150 billion over the next five years. “If these projections are even halfway correct, they call into question our ability not only to provide a sound national defense but also to meet the Administration’s future deficit targets,” said Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.

The Administration is running out of military considerations it can trade away to make this underfunded defense program work. An early decision was to cut force structure and force modernization severely in hopes of preserving readiness. That priority was purchased at a price. For example, the Air Force fighter force has been cut by half, the bomber force by a third. It is difficult to think of a force modernization program that has not been cancelled, curtailed, or postponed. As Mr. Perry explained, weapons modernization was chosen to serve as the “bill payer” for readiness. The selected sacrifices, however, were not enough. In May–early in its declared “Year of Readiness”–the Air Force ordered its major commands to cut their aircraft operating costs by twenty percent to meet budget demands that service leaders say cannot be ignored.

In June, a task force of former military officers reported that despite “some downward indicators,” general force readiness “is acceptable in most measurable areas.” The panel noted a number of specific problems (a growing backlog of deferred maintenance, for example, and a shortage of critical Air Force spare parts) and warned that the services remain vulnerable to slipping into a “hollow force” status. It was hardly a ringing endorsement in an area that the Defense Department had stripped its other accounts to shore up.

Many in this Administration and Congress will no doubt concur with GAO’s assessment that the $150 billion shortfall is attributable to “overprogramming.” GAO blathers on about the “unaffordability” of C-17 airlifters and calls the F-22 fighter “a premature venture.” It does not dawn on these people, apparently, that the problem is not overprogramming but underfunding. The Administration stepped into the moonshine with its original make-believe budget in March 1993 and seems stubbornly determined not to learn from its mistake.