Article Published in The Baltimore Sun
WASHINGTON – Ever since Sen. John Kerry became the likely presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, Republicans have been trying to undercut his military credentials. Their basic message is that Mr. Kerry is a vacillating liberal who votes against weapons essential to winning the war on terrorists.
Despite finding only a handful of weapons that Mr. Kerry opposed over decades of public service – most of which have little to do with fighting terrorists – the Republican message has made an impression on many voters.
Since President Bush never held a federal job prior to becoming president, he has no record of past military decisions to defend.
His vice president does, though. A key reason why Dick Cheney was put on the Republican ticket four years ago was to balance Mr. Bush’s weak military resume. Mr. Cheney never served in the military, but he did serve six terms in Congress and ran the Pentagon during Operation Desert Storm. He was widely viewed as a hard-liner on defense matters.
There’s no question that Mr. Cheney has styled himself as something of a super hawk, but when it comes to opposing weapons, his advisers seem to be counting on no one looking closely at his record. The fact is that in his brief four-year stint as defense secretary during the waning days of the Cold War, Mr. Cheney terminated more weapons than every Democrat combined over the previous four decades.
The depth and breadth of his cuts were so breathtaking that today the military is still struggling to cope with some of the consequences. And while the tenor of the times seemed to call for a drawdown in Cold War forces, subsequent developments have made some of his decisions look poorly conceived and wasteful.
In the case of the Air Force, Mr. Cheney recommended terminating both its top-of-the-line F-15 fighter and its lower-cost F-16 fighter. He cut the number of A-10 ground attack planes from 435 in 1990 to 159 in 1993, with the intention of phasing the A-10 out completely. He delayed development of the next-generation F/A-22 fighter while reducing both the annual production rate and the final production goal – steps that later led critics to claim the plane was unaffordable.
That’s a lot of cutting for someone who often stressed the importance of air superiority – but he didn’t stop there. After saying in congressional hearings that the military needed more airlift in the future, he recommended cutting the next-generation C-17 cargo plane from 210 to 120 airframes. And after proposing in 1990 a reduction in the B-2 bomber program from 132 planes to 75 – which he said was the minimum acceptable number – he proposed in 1992 to cease production at 20 planes.
Today, a dozen years later, many experts view these decisions with regret. The Air Force eventually decided it needed even more C-17s than the original 210, but in the process of going down and then back up, it wasted $10 billion on uneconomical production plans. Military reformers say that the United States should have bought many more B-2s for conventional bombing missions; Mr. Cheney squandered a $30 billion development program and left the Air Force with decrepit Eisenhower-era B-52s for the foreseeable future.
Other services suffered similar devastation under Mr. Cheney.
The Army lost its only tank program (Abrams), its only infantry vehicle (Bradley) and its only heavy attack helicopter (Apache). It also lost a third of its active-duty divisions, which later led to greater reliance on Reserves for combat support.
The Navy lost both of its submarine production programs (Trident and Seawolf), its top-of-the-line F-14 fighter and its next-generation A-12 bomber (which Mr. Cheney terminated so ineptly that the case is still in litigation today).
The Marine Corps, being scrappier than the other services, managed to prevent Mr. Cheney from cutting its highest-priority aviation program, the V-22 Osprey tilt rotor, by going to Congress. Mr. Cheney responded by refusing to spend the money Congress appropriated until fellow Republicans told him he was hurting the party. Today, the Pentagon points to the Osprey as a prime example of military transformation.
There were so many weapons cuts under Mr. Cheney that by election year 1992, the Pentagon could claim credit for terminating “over 100 weapons programs.” Nobody knew then that B-2 bombers would play a central role in the Balkan air war or that Abrams tanks would be critical to securing Baghdad or that the military would need a system like the Osprey in Afghanistan.
Mr. Cheney was the biggest unilateral disarmer in recent history, and darned proud of it.
Loren B. Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches emerging technology in Georgetown University’s security studies program.
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