The Washington Post introduced a much-needed note of realism into the election-year debate of military preparedness on September 24 when it published an editorial entitled “Mismatch in Defense.” It cited a Congressional Budget Office estimate that in order to preserve the military’s current force structure, defense spending would have to average $340 billion annually over the next fifteen years. The editorial correctly argued “neither of the parties, nor their presidential candidates, has faced up” to the choices that implies — either a big increase in military spending or a big decrease in military commitments.
Most of the shortfall in defense spending isn’t related to readiness, meaning the ability to fight and win wars today. It’s about modernization of aging weapons, which will largely determine whether the U.S. is ready to fight ten or twenty years from now. CBO says that in order to sustain the force structure put in place by the Clinton Administration, the Pentagon needs to spend an average of $90 billion each year on procurement. But as the chart below shows, the administration never got above $60 billion, and during the “procurement holiday” of the mid-1990s it spent barely half of the required amount.
As a result, the Pentagon has a massive hangover from the procurement holiday. The question isn’t whether America is ready to fight today. It is. The question is whether it can stay ready given planned levels of procurement funding and weapons utilization. However well-intentioned the administration’s global activism may have been, it has used up the Cold-War arsenal at a rapid rate while underfunding recapitalization.
If you subtract from CBO’s “sustaining” budget of $340 billion the $13 billion spent outside the Defense Department (mostly on Energy Department nuclear programs), then what’s really being said is that the Pentagon needs $327 billion annually — about $40 billion more than it’s likely to get in 2001. Three- quarters of that difference is a shortfall in military procurement. That’s the real “readiness” gap in America’s military plans, and the presidential candidates need to show how they would fix it.
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