Last week, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on the implications of long-term U.S. defense budget trends. The common conclusion reached by four witnesses, including senior analysts from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Congressional Research Service (CRS), was that the long-term trends were dismal. Unless dramatic action is taken, U.S. military power will decline and with it the stability of much of the world.
It may be difficult for many to believe that our defense posture should be in such a parlous state in light of current historically high defense budgets. The answer is relatively straightforward. According to Stephen Daggett of the CRS, “. . .the budget seems tight because the cost of almost everything the Defense Department does — from meeting recruitment goals, to operating new weapons, to acquiring advanced technology — has been accelerating upward at a pace that growing budgets cannot keep up with.” His colleague, CBO Deputy Assistant Director, Matthew Goldberg, identified four principle reasons for the growth in the cost of defense. First, there is the real growth rate in pay and benefits for both military personnel and defense civilians. Much of this growth is because of Congress’s decision to allow extremely generous increases in benefits. Second, operations and maintenance costs are rising for both aging weapons systems and for the more complex new systems entering the force. Even weapons systems deployed for the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are filled with complex and hard-to-maintain electronics. Third, the defense department needs to replace current systems that are ending their useful service lives with new, more expensive systems. Finally, there are brand new investments in extremely capable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems such as the unmanned Predator, Global Hawk and Shadow. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has demanded major increases in the number of unmanned aerial systems deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The nation’s current financial difficulties make it all but inevitable that defense budgets are going to decline. At the same time, fixed costs within that budget are increasing as people are added and their pay and benefits go up. The acquisition accounts are going to be squeezed. Unfortunately, the military has been relying on a lot of equipment that largely dates back to the Reagan buildup of the 1980s. This equipment is almost out of its useful life. Moreover, new ISR, electronic warfare and networking requirements mean that it will be increasingly difficult to modify older platforms, even if they are still functional.
There are really only two solutions for the U.S. military. We can either continue on the current path and see our military decline as it obsolesces, or we can make the decision now to shrink the size of the military and concentrate on those missions and the associated force posture that supports our long-term security.
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