Article Published in the Pensacola News Journal
Al Gore says America’s military is the best in the world. George Bush, Jr. says America’s military is in decline. Who should you believe?
You should believe both, because they’re both right.
The U.S. spends more on national defense than the six next biggest military powers combined, and as a result its armed forces are capable of doing things no other nation’s military can do. Of course, they’re expected to do things no other nation would do, because the U.S. has assumed the role of global peacekeeper in the post-communist era.
On the other hand, there has been a subtle but steady erosion in U.S. military readiness during the Clinton years. The reason this decline has gone largely unnoticed is that many potential enemies — Russia, Iraq, North Korea — have been losing ground faster.
Iraq has been besieged by embargoes and no-fly zones for a decade. North Korea has been wracked by famine. And as the recent tragedy with the submarine “Kursk” demonstrated, Russia’s military has grown so decrepit that the main threat it poses is dangerous accidents.
So it hasn’t been hard for America to maintain its military edge over the rest of the world. But it’s going to get a lot harder in the years ahead, mostly because of investments that weren’t made on Clinton’s watch.
In order to understand why, you first have to understand what “readiness” means to the military. It’s the ability to fight effectively on short notice today. The Clinton Administration has done a reasonably good job of maintaining near-term readiness.
Sure, a lot of experienced personnel are leaving the services, but that’s mostly because of the booming economy. This “retention” problem wouldn’t exist if Clinton hadn’t done such a good job of managing the economy.
And sure, the mission-capable rates of major weapon systems have deteriorated from where they stood at the end of the Cold War, but that’s mainly because the administration has been so active in global peacekeeping. It’s easy to keep weapons in a high state of readiness if you never use them. Clinton’s been using them a lot, and the U.S. is still more ready to fight than any other country.
The problem is that the Pentagon has maintained readiness by not funding modernization, so the arsenal is beginning to run down. If you use weapons frequently, they age faster. The older they get, the more it costs to keep them working. That leaves less money for buying new weapons.
Only 3% of the federal budget is being spent today on weapons purchases. As a share of national wealth or federal spending, military modernization is at its lowest level in three generations.
Because it only bought 21 stealthy B-2 bombers, the administration plans to operate 40-year old B-52 bombers for another 40 years. It cut back production of the Air Force’s next-generation F-22 fighter from 750 to 648, then to 438, then to 339. It only bought five or six new warships annually, meaning the fleet either ages or shrinks far below what the Navy needs to meet global commitments.
So the problem isn’t that the military is unready today, it’s that it won’t be ready tomorrow. It will be too old and too tired to cope with new threats. The next administration needs to invest more on renewing the nation’s arsenal.
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