Defense Must Fall, But Weapons Cuts Will Have Consequences

The following remarks were delivered by Loren Thompson at the Cato Institute on November 19. They acknowledge that defense spending will need to fall in the years ahead, but use four programs favored by deficit panels for cuts to illustrate how slashing weapons will hurt the military and maybe even taxpayers.

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THE CONSEQUENCES OF WEAPONS CUTS

When the current decade began, the United States accounted for about a third of global economic output and a third of global military spending.

Today, it accounts for a quarter of global economic output and nearly half of global military spending.

Obviously, the growing gap between these two measures of U.S. power is unsustainable: five percent of the world’s population cannot continue funding 50 percent of military outlays while only generating 25 percent of economic output.

So I am not here to defend the present level of defense spending.

In fact, I think Congressman Frank’s proposal to cut a trillion dollars from the defense budget over ten years will look a bit on the light side by the time all the deficit cutting is done.

However, what I want to do in my remarks is explain the consequences of some of the weapons cuts that are being proposed.

As you probably know, the normal pattern in defense downturns is for weapons accounts to be cut first and cut furthest — a pattern that is already repeating itself this time around even before the military budget begins falling.

Secretary Gates claims to have cut $330 billion in planned weapons spending since the Obama Administration began, which is a lot more money than he has proposed cutting out of other categories of military activity.

Now, a series of deficit-reduction panels is calling for additional weapons cuts, and military leaders say new weapons reductions will be revealed with the fiscal 2012 budget request in February.

The zeal for slashing military technology outlays will probably persist well after all the obvious victims have been claimed, because politically it is much easier to kill obscure weapons programs than popular benefit programs.

But there are consequences to killing weapons that tend to be overlooked in budget-cutting exercises…

– First, you squander the money that has been spent to date on the programs.

– Second, you deprive warfighters of capabilities the weapons would have delivered.

– Third, you have to compensate for the lost capabilities by purchasing something else.

When these realities are factored into plans for terminating this or that weapon, the budgetary and human costs of cutting sometimes end up dwarfing any projected savings.

I’d like to illustrate that problem by examining the consequences of killing four big-ticket weapons programs that have been targeted by proponents of reduced defense spending.

The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle being developed by the Marine Corps is in the cross-hairs of just about every deficit-reduction panel proposing weapons cuts.

And with good reason, because EFV’s cost over $10 million each and have suffered reliability problems in testing.

However, they also deliver much more speed, range, firepower and protection than the Cold War amphibious vehicles the Marines are using today.

The Marines have been waiting decades to replace their aged vehicles, and during that time they have become sitting ducks for precision-guided munitions.

The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle would solve almost all the problems with the current amphibs, turning the sea from an obstacle into a maneuver space and enabling Marines to come ashore at the places where they are least likely to incur casualties.

The Corps appears to have no backup plan if EFV is canceled, which means it would either have to abandon opposed amphibious landings or incur heavy casualties to keep doing the mission.

The fashionable view, expressed repeatedly by Secretary Gates, is that amphibious warfare is unlikely to be a major military requirement in the future.

But the future is unknowable, and every rogue state that currently concerns U.S. military planners from Iran to North Korea to Venezuela has a coastline that would be more safely approached in an EFV than in today’s vehicles.

Bottom line: either we buy some EFVs or we start over with a costly new development program, wasting the billions of dollars already spent, and maybe wasting the lives of many Marines because they had to go ashore in deathtraps.

The V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor is another favorite target of deficit panels.

The chairmen of the president’s deficit commission and the Domenici-Rivlin report urge an early end to production of V-22, citing its troubled development history and high cost.

But the unique V-22, which combines the vertical agility of a helicopter with the speed and reach of a fixed-wing plane, is central to expeditionary warfare plans.

The Marine Corps has built its future concept of operations around the presumed availability of the airframe, and has spent over $50 billion of a $60 billion plan to bring the program to fruition.

Air Force special operators are using their own version of V-22 to conduct challenging insertion and rescue operations that would be much harder if not impossible to accomplish using conventional helicopters.

The simple reality is that without Osprey, both services will see their warfighting options narrowed in future conflicts, because there are some places you can’t land in a conventional airplane and some places you can’t reach in a conventional helicopter where you can go in a tilt-rotor.

Simpson and Bowles implicitly conceded this point when they argued the “deep penetration” capabilities of V-22 were more crucial to future expeditionary operations than the EFV, but if that’s true then why attack the V-22?

Bottom line: if we prematurely terminate V-22 production now, we will undercut the value of the multi-decade investment made in tilt-rotor technology, hobble expeditionary warfare plans, have to buy more conventional helicopters — and oh, by the way, condemn additional warfighters to unnecessary deaths in future conflicts.

The Joint Tactical Radio System, sometimes called JTRS, is another popular candidate for termination, although few of its critics seem to understand it.

JTRS is what’s known as a “software-reconfigurable” radio, which means that its performance can be modified and enhanced by downloading new software rather than having to buy additional hardware.

That opens the door to replacing dozens of incompatible legacy radio systems operated by various military services with a single wireless communications device that can connect to any warfighter in the battlespace.

It won’t totally lift the fog of war, but it will sure help improve the visibility for friendly forces.

But the Simpson-Bowles report complains the radio has “longstanding problems, which do not appear to have been resolved.”

Actually, that’s only half true — the longstanding problems with the Army version have been largely resolved, while the Air Force and Navy versions haven’t had major problems.

A key point the critics have missed is that if JTRS falters, all those legacy radio systems will have to be kept viable until something better becomes available — a hugely expensive task given the diversity of the installed product base, and the fact that even when the legacy radios are working, they often can’t talk to each other.

That’s why there are U.S. cargo planes in Afghanistan today equipped with half a dozen different radios — an operational and logistical burden that JTRS would ease considerably.

Bottom line: if the Joint Tactical Radio System is killed, then the military will have to spend billions of dollars to keep outmoded devices functioning without being able to communicate effectively in many life-threatening circumstances — leading to even more unnecessary deaths of warfighters in the future.

That brings me to my last example of a weapons system targeted by deficit panels, the Virginia-class attack submarine.

The Domenici-Rivlin panel has suggested that major savings could be realized by “deferring” construction of the submarine.

This may well be the dumbest defense idea advanced by any deficit-reduction body.

Aside from the fact that a dozen have already been delivered or are in some stage of assembly, Virginia is the only submarine construction program currently under way in the United States.

So saying construction should be “deferred” is another way of saying the United States should cease building submarines for the first time in roughly a century.

If that were actually to occur, the skills and supplier base associated with submarine construction would quickly disappear in places like Connecticut and Virginia, and could only be reconstituted later at very high cost.

But the U.S. wouldn’t just be abandoning submarine construction, it would be walking away from undersea warfare entirely, because Cold War attack subs will begin retiring at the rate of three or four boats per year in the coming decade.

They have to retire due to the deterioration of their nuclear reactors after decades of operation, and there are numerous other age-related problems with their on-board equipment.

Isn’t it sort of odd that a panel of budget experts would propose exiting undersea warfare at precisely the moment when the survivability of our surface fleet in the Western Pacific is being called into question?

The Virginia class is by far the most survivable combat system in the Navy’s regular fleet, and it is designed to conduct everything from clandestine intelligence gathering to antisubmarine warfare to land attack to special forces insertion.

Not only is it a very versatile vessel, but the cost of each successive ship in the class has been falling steadily.

So when you see a budget panel suggest killing such a program, it’s a reasonable conclusion that they either don’t understand the program or they don’t understand the nation’s global security requirements.

Even if the U.S. were to become an isolationist power it would still need an undersea fleet to protect its interests, and Virginia class is literally the only option available in a reasonable timeframe for preserving that capability.

Perhaps you are wondering why I’ve devoted my time today to weapons cuts rather than discussing all the other defense measures deficit panels have proposed, like changing Tricare and closing bases.

The reason is that none of those other things is going to happen — at least, not anytime soon — whereas we have already embarked on major cutbacks in weapons programs.

However, my point is not that we should stop eliminating unneeded or over-priced weapons.

I know that paying $800,000 for a next-generation jeep is ridiculous.

My point is that we ought to be honest about what the weapons cuts we are proposing mean in fiscal and human terms, and that begins with making some effort to inform ourselves on the details of the programs.

That is not what I see in many of the deficit reduction proposals being advanced today.

The panels have not informed themselves on the programs, and so many of the measures they propose are dangerous or costly or counter-productive.

If we are going to do this right, then we need to know what we are talking about.