The Bill Comes Due

Dec. 1, 2000

In early September, with Congressional hearings coming up on military readiness, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen admonished the Joint Chiefs of Staff not to “beat the drum with a tin cup in hand to try to generate more pressure for defense spending.”

Neither Cohen nor anyone else imagined then how strong a case for defense spending would be presented to Congress and the public before the month was out, only part of it the doing of the service chiefs.

The first shot came Sept. 14 from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, which said the services would need another $51 billion a year, just to stay even with where they are today.

The armed forces did not get into this hole overnight. Through the 1990s, they took one budget cut after another, even as operations and deployments abroad multiplied. They had to divert money from investment accounts to pay for everyday expenses, and thus did not replace equipment as it aged and wore out. Now the bill has come due.

To keep their existing quality at the present budget levels, CBO said, the services would have to be cut by 25 percent–a reduction on the order of two active Army divisions, three carrier battle groups, and three active duty Air Force fighter wings.

More than half of the shortfall identified by CBO was money needed to recapitalize the force, making up for a 10-year hiatus in which the Pentagon repeatedly put off replacing aircraft and other systems. The fleet is now the oldest in history, and rife with maintenance and readiness difficulties.

At the hearings on Sept. 27, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) asked the service chiefs point-blank how much more money they needed. In the past, the chiefs have been criticized for their reluctance to publicly state their full requirements if they exceeded the official budget ceiling.

This time, there was no hesitation. They said they need $48 billion to $58 billion more a year than they are getting now. The Air Force laid down the largest requirement, an additional $20 billion to $30 billion per year.

“I must tell you that the near-term readiness of the United States Air Force has not turned around,” Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, told Congress. “At best, it has leveled off. Combat unit readiness has dropped well over 20 percent, and our mission capability rates on our aircraft are down more than 10 percent over the last decade.”

Ryan said that “our aircraft are aging out at a rate that has us very concerned. We must recapitalize this force. The average age of a United States Air Force aircraft is 22 years old today, and in 15 years it will be nearly 30 years old, even if we execute every modernization program we currently have on the books. We have never dealt with a force this old, and it is taking inordinate time and work and money to keep the force airworthy and ready.”

The Air Force has “mortgaged long-term readiness to shore up short-term readiness,” he said. “We’re buying about one-third of the aircraft needed to stop the force aging, and we are on a 250-year replacement cycle for our infrastructure, where our people work and live.”

The only way to assure readiness of forces engaged abroad has been to draw down units based in the United States.

The story is much the same with the other services.

On Oct. 5, the General Accounting Office, which had been separately pursuing a related issue, spoke up. GAO warned that the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance accounts–the ones into which investment funds had been diverted–are themselves running short and need another transfusion of money.

These accounts could be billions short as expenses go beyond the budget projection for contingency operations, real property maintenance, health care, and fuel.

The national news media had begun to take notice by that point, and reporters at the Defense Writers Group breakfast on Oct. 26 asked Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters how much more money the services had to have.

For the armed forces to continue to do what they are doing today, Peters said, “Probably we need, DoD wide, somewhere on the order of $80 billion to $100 billion a year in rough numbers.”

Reports of a huge defense shortfall have circulated in Washington for years. The problem has also been discussed behind closed doors. The declaration of the service chiefs in September was without recent precedent, though, and the CBO and GAO reports lent support to what the chiefs said.

The situation is too bad to be explained away by those who want to keep a tight lid on the defense budget.

Bear in mind that the stated shortfalls do not address new or emerging missions. If defense of space or the protection of electronic infrastructures from foreign attack are considered, for example, the unfunded requirement is higher.

In the recent election campaign, neither side recognized the full extent of the problem. How much the next Administration can or will do to fix it remains to be seen.

The nation spends less than 3.0 percent of the Gross Domestic Product on defense, the lowest percentage since before Pearl Harbor.

It isn’t enough. And if it takes a tin cup and a drum to correct that, let the noise begin.