The war in Iraq is proving far more costly and protracted than the Bush Administration predicted. Nearly a year after President Bush declared victory, U.S. forces are facing a Sunni insurgency, a Shiite uprising, a terrorist bombing campaign, and an unraveling coalition. In the most optimistic scenario, all of this suffering leads to the installation of a “permanent” Iraqi government at the end of 2005. But nobody in the administration seems to know precisely how the steps producing that outcome — elections, a transitional government, a new constitution — will unfold, so it looks like Iraq will be a big budgetary burden for years to come.
Pentagon officials told Congress this week that the war is costing $4.7 billion per month. The real costs are much higher, but those larger costs are subsumed in the defense budget, which funds a military posture costing about a billion dollars per day. The puzzle the administration faces is how to pay the costs of Iraq not covered by the defense budget. Thus far it has favored supplemental appropriations, arguing that it would be hard to sustain a coherent defense posture if unanticipated operations had to be funded out of ongoing programs. The Clinton Administration took a different approach, and the result was that modernization of weapons was deferred for much of its tenure. One reason Iraq costs so much today is the high cost of maintaining the aging arsenal inherited from Clinton years. For example, the cost of repairing 40-year-old Air Force tankers is doubling every six years.
But with the federal budget deficit running at record levels and the administration’s prescription-drug initiative likely to erode the revenue boost from a recovering economy, there’s little doubt that weapons accounts will be targeted for cuts — particularly if the programs in question don’t have much to do with winning in Iraq. The first salvo in that campaign came last month, when the Army boldly decided to kill its prized (but very pricey) Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter. Senator John McCain launched a second salvo in an April 11 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, questioning the need for the Air Force’s next-generation Raptor fighter.
McCain’s view isn’t likely to gain wide support because he exaggerated the cost of the fighter and omitted the fact that most program costs have already been obligated. Raptor isn’t the obvious place to save money. But McCain may be at least half right. The Air Force has too many fighters, while it is struggling to modernize other types of aircraft like tankers, transports and radar planes. It probably needs to retire a lot of its Cold War tactical aircraft to free up money for planes that have a future. It also needs to look at ways of using space and unmanned vehicles to avoid the cost of recapitalizing Cold War surveillance planes.
The other services also face hard choices. The Marine Corps will follow the Army’s lead in rolling out a transformation plan that makes its combat units more like special-operations forces. That means lightening up on heavy equipment and relying more on Navy firepower, especially strike aircraft. The Navy will reduce fleet requirements by keeping warships forward deployed and flying crews to them — thus eliminating the time wasted in steaming to and from deployment areas. Bottom line: modernization is already slowing as Iraq-related budget pressures force the military to substitute innovative tactics for new technology.
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