The federal government’s budget is so big and complicated that almost nobody really understands it. As a result, misconceptions about spending patterns often become firmly rooted in public discourse despite lacking a factual basis. For instance, it is an article of faith in some quarters that the Pentagon routinely squanders vast sums on unneeded weapons — even though if you add up all the money spent on military research, development and procurement, it amounts to less than 5% of the federal budget. So much for the nefarious influence of the “military-industrial complex.”
In the case of the Army, the real acquisition scandal isn’t how much money is being spent on weapons, but how little. The level of expenditure requested for the fiscal year commencing October 1 — fiscal 2015 — is far too modest to sustain America’s edge in land warfare over the long run. And if spending caps known as sequestration are imposed in subsequent years, the Army will essentially cease developing any new weapons. It has already canceled most of the major programs that comprised its modernization agenda when the Obama Administration took office; now it is looking at killing what’s left. For instance, plans to continue buying an improved version of the Stryker troop carrier that affords better protection to occupants from improvised explosive devices will grind to a halt if no relief from sequestration is forthcoming after 2015.
Obviously, lack of adequate protection for the warfighters most likely to engage enemies in close combat means more casualties. Young lives ended needlessly, families destroyed, children deprived of parents because somebody in the federal bureaucracy decided there were better ways to spend money than on protecting troops. The reason such decisions get made is because most people simply don’t grasp how miniscule the Army’s funding for new technology has become. So let’s take a look at how much the federal government is spending, and how little the Army gets to equip its soldiers.
The federal budget is expected to total $3.9 trillion in fiscal 2015, which means an average expenditure of $10.6 billion each day, and $440 million per hour. The Army’s request for all facets of weapons research, development, testing and acquisition in 2015 totals $20 billion. Even if you include the modest amount of money for weapons acquisition included in the overseas contingencies request released this summer, the Army’s weapons budget next year will total barely two days worth of federal spending at current rates. And if you then start breaking the acquisition request down into specific categories of technology — aircraft, missiles, vehicles, ammunition — it begins to look ridiculously small.
For example, the Army requested a grand total of $1.5 billion in fiscal 2015 for acquiring new or improved ground combat vehicles. That’s about three hours worth of federal spending to modernize its tanks, troop carriers, mobile artillery and other tactical vehicles. It requested $5.1 billion for aviation, meaning helicopters like Black Hawk and Apache; that’s around 11 hours worth of federal spending at current rates. Not surprisingly, it decided to cancel a next-generation troop carrier and scout helicopter in the run-up to the 2015 budget request. Which means it will continue relying on combat systems begun in the Reagan years, back when politicians and policymakers understood the need to maintain America’s edge in military technology.
Army leaders know they aren’t spending enough on new technology, but like everyone else in the federal government who isn’t running an entitlement program, they are subject to spending caps and political constraints on what they can do. They have to pay the troops, and they have to maintain a reasonable level of combat proficiency. That leaves almost nothing for modernization. During the same fiscal year that the Army will get a paltry $20 billion for new weapons — about one-half of one-percent of federal spending — Americans will spend at least five times as much (probably more) on illegal drugs and Walmart will book 25 times as much in sales. These trends can’t continue much longer without destroying the Army’s ability to win wars.
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