The tragic paradox of America’s Army is that the only time it truly thrives is when it is dying. When soldiers are under fire in Korea or Indochina or Iraq, political leaders shovel huge amounts of money to the service because the consequences of under-funding warfighters are all too obvious. But when peacetime comes, it’s the Air Force and the Navy that get the big bucks, because they’re a “deterrent.” That was the subtext on defense secretary Leon Panetta’s comments at the Wilson Center yesterday about cutting weapons spending while focusing more on the Pacific. Guess which service’s weapons programs and warfighting units are most likely to get slashed in that equation?
I thought about all that on Tuesday while walking through the magnificently orchestrated conference and exhibition that the Association of the United States Army is hosting this week at Washington’s convention center. The meeting is paid for mostly by military contractors who are trying to sell the best combat systems ever built into a rapidly softening demand environment. On the same day that Panetta delivered his speech across town, the Army disclosed that it would kill its next-generation ground-mobile radio, its replacement of the Hellfire munition, and an electronic-listening aircraft. Some analysts think the Army’s remaining vehicle-development programs will soon follow (Senate appropriators have already moved to terminate a Humvee replacement).
Does anybody in the Obama Administration understand that killing such programs nearly guarantees soldiers will die unnecessarily in future wars? Since coming into office, it has presided over the cancellation of nearly two dozen next-generation vehicles, munitions, communications links and other combat systems that would have helped America’s soldiers to survive and win in future wars. To make matters worse, it has tightened up on contracting terms to such a degree that defense companies aren’t even sure they want to participate in the programs that remain. The arsenal of the future is disappearing with each passing month, and today’s savings are being bought at the expense of tomorrow’s soldiers.
This moral and operational myopia isn’t a new development. Rudyard Kipling described it many years ago in a poem that famously observed,
It’s Tommy this, and Tommy that,
And chuck him out the brute,
But it’s “Savior of his Country,”
When the guns begin to shoot.
So Army leaders know what lies ahead for them, until new threats requiring ground forces once again emerge. By that time, the weapons bought during the Reagan era will be thoroughly antiquated, and America’s Army will be lucky to retain any battlefield edge at all over its latest adversaries. That’s the way we do things in America. It’s always about today, rather than tomorrow. It’s really amazing that we’ve survived as long as we have. One reason why is that America’s Army always answers the call, even when it has been hobbled by its civilian leaders.
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