Article Published in the San Diego Union Tribune
These are difficult days for Donald Rumsfeld. A quarter century after serving as the nation’s youngest defense secretary in the years following the Vietnam War, he has returned to the Pentagon to find it in an eerily similar state of disarray. Weapons are aging. Readiness is eroding. Morale is depressed. And the unpaid bills just keep piling up.
On Rumsfeld’s first tour as secretary, his biggest headache was the post-Vietnam antimilitarism that infected congressional deliberations on defense policy. That’s largely gone now, but it has been replaced by a waning sense of urgency about military preparedness that potentially could be just as corrosive.
Rumsfeld has a mandate from the President to challenge Pentagon orthodoxy and transform the military into an information-age force. Bush declared two years ago on the campaign trail that “As President, I will begin an immediate, comprehensive review of our military — the structure of its forces, the state of its strategy, the priorities of its procurement — conducted by a leadership team under the Secretary of Defense.” He said he would give his defense secretary “a broad mandate — to challenge the status quo and envision a new architecture of American defense for decades to come.”
That is precisely what Rumsfeld has attempted to do since assuming office in January. He spun up a series of panels populated by academic experts and respected retired officers to examine such long-term issues as geopolitical trends, new technologies and changing mission requirements. And he deliberately excluded most of the usual insiders from the discussions, in order to receive unvarnished views as to the real challenges facing the military.
The panels have now completed their deliberations, and Rumsfeld is meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to begin the next step in the process, during which the military will have their own say on what the future strategy and force posture should look like. The Pentagon is required by law to complete a “quadrennial defense review” by the end of the fiscal year (September 30), and provide Congress with the results.
Getting the military involved should end much of the sniping about how the process has been conducted. Some senior military officers thought they should have been involved from day one and have complained to the press, feeding an impression that the review was being poorly run. Hamstrung by a lack of confirmed subordinates and the usual burdens of establishing control over the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy, Rumsfeld has been an easy target of critics in the media.
He has now begun to reach out to those critics, both in the military and on Capitol Hill. But while the criticism of his approach is likely to be muted over the coming months, the new administration has barely begun to come to grips with the problems its military establishment faces. Those problems are compounded by a lack of consensus concerning the future threats the nation faces, making any defense posture potentially subject to challenge.
No one misses the Soviets, but at least during the Cold War there was general agreement in Washington about what the key dangers were. Now that bipartisan consensus is gone, and a powerful undertow of opposition to increased defense spending has emerged in Congress — despite abundant evidence that the military can’t make ends meet on it current budget.
It’s not hard to see why some legislators think enough is already being spent on the military. At about $300 billion, the current US defense budget is bigger than the combined total for Russia, Japan, China, France, Britain, Germany and Italy. But it is also the lowest percentage of national wealth spent on defense in three generations — roughly 3% of a $10 trillion economy. According to some estimates, that is barely half of what Americans spend on gambling in an average year.
What concerns Rumsfeld and his key advisors is that the Clinton Administration’s spending priorities may have been taking a gamble with national security. Although the former President spoke frequently about investing in America’s future, his Pentagon budgets were heavy on consumption and light on investment. The military was run at a very high level of operating tempo throughout Clinton’s term, while only minimal expenditure was made for new weapons and infrastructure. As a result, the whole system has begun to run down.
Rumsfeld was aware of that before he returned to the Pentagon, but he wasn’t prepared for just how serious the problems are. Almost every category of Air Force plane — fighters, transports, tankers, etc. — has either exceeded its maximum acceptable average age, or is within months of doing so. Recapitalization of base housing and other infrastructure is progressing so slowly that at current rates it would take over a century to replace all the decrepit facilities. Military healthcare is underfunded to the tune of $5 billion annually. Everywhere Rumsfeld looks, he sees evidence of decay.
The Pentagon’s internal review has confirmed Congressional Budget Office estimates that about $50 billion more would need to be spent on the military each year just to arrest the erosion in capability. Much of that would go to replacing aging facilities, improving military pay and benefits, catching up with maintenance backlog, and other necessary housekeeping. The rest would go to revitalizing the Cold War arsenal with a new generation of information-age weapons.
Reports that Rumsfeld plans to make massive investments in missile defense and new military space systems are wrong. While he intends to give both mission areas increased priority — reflecting his recent service on missile-defense and space commissions formed by the Clinton Administration — the amounts involved are relatively modest. The preponderance of increased weapons spending will go to the conventional systems that have always consumed the lion’s share of procurement accounts.
The biggest increases will go to aircraft. Rumsfeld wants to accelerate purchase of the Air Force’s stealthy F-22 air-superiority fighter and the Navy’s carrier-based F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, partly because existing fighters are aging rapidly and partly to clear the deck for production of the versatile Joint Strike Fighter. He also will accelerate purchases of the C-17 transport, begin development of a next-generation tanker (the current fleet is approaching 40 years of age), and either buy more B-2 bombers or initiate a new intercontinental bomber program dubbed B-3.
In addition, he is determined to keep the size of the Navy above 300 ships, a goal that will require increasing the number of warships built annually by about three above the level that prevailed in the Clinton years. Contrary to some media reports, he has no plans to delay development of the next-generation DD-21 destroyer or CVNX successor to Nimitz-class carriers. During his first term as defense secretary in the 1970s, Rumsfeld decided to buy nonnuclear carriers rather than more nuclear-powered Nimitz’s, but he no longer views that as an option. He also wants to convert four redundant Trident ballistic-missile subs for use as conventional cruise-missile launchers.
Most of the remaining weapons
Find Archived Articles: