Pentagon executives told Congress last week that they can’t put a pricetag on their supplemental spending request for Iraq until later in the year, when costs are better understood. Actually, that’s only half of the story: they are locked in a deficit-driven dispute with the Office of Management and Budget about how such costs will be covered. OMB wants the supplemental to be less than $30 billion; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants it to be over $50 billion. The difference
— an amount bigger than the Army’s entire procurement account — might have to be absorbed in the Pentagon’s regular budget.
Bush Administration fiscal policies have created the budgetary equivalent of a perfect storm: domestic spending is growing faster than at any time since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, but the President still wants big tax cuts. Thus a 2004 budgetary surplus projected at $374 billion three years ago has turned into a $523 billion deficit — a swing of about $900 billion. About a third of this change is due to tax cuts, with the rest caused by spending increases, unanticipated revenue shortfalls and a weaker-than-expected economy.
When Bill Clinton inherited a similar imbalance from the President’s father in 1993, he reacted by cutting defense spending — especially for new weapons. History is about to repeat itself. The President won’t give up his tax cuts, Congress won’t give up prescription drug benefits, and both sides want to reduce the deficit. (A Kerry presidency wouldn’t fix the imbalance because he favors universal healthcare.) With military personnel and operations accounts hard to cut in the midst of a war, investment accounts look like the obvious target. Here are the weapons programs that are most vulnerable:
— Production of the Navy’s Virginia-class attack sub was supposed to double to two boats per year in 2007, but the service has other priorities; it stays at one.
— Army’s Comanche program hasn’t produced a single operational helicopter in 20 years, and service support is weak; cuts are likely, termination possible to protect Apache upgrades.
— Air Force’s E-10 surveillance plane competes with space-based radar for funding; Air Force will buy a few more Joint Stars to address cruise missile defense and let E-10 lapse.
— Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship is a networking marvel in search of a requirement; CNO seems to be the only Navy supporter, and it lacks linkage to traditional shipyard political interests.
— Joint Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle is a science project for transformation visionaries; no support in the services or on Capitol Hill, and no hope of a usable system anytime soon.
— Air Force Airborne Laser could be a revolutionary weapon, but development problems have raised doubts about its role in future missile defense.
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