In his first year in office, President Obama enacted some of the most significant weapons systems cuts since Jimmy Carter was president more than 30 years ago. These cuts included elimination of the Transformational Satellite program as well as elimination of eight new Army combat vehicle types, all of which were integral to modernizing U.S. military capabilities for 21st-century irregular warfare.
And now, in a brazen act of political effrontery, President Obama has let it be known that he’s not yet finished with the defense budget. The U.S. military, the president announced this week, will be forced, yet again, to scale back its modernization efforts.
“There’s still more waste [that] we need to cut,” Obama said during Wednesday’s signing ceremony for the Fiscal Year 2010 defense authorization act. “Changing the culture in Washington will take time and sustained effort. And that’s why Secretary Gates and I will continue waging these battles in the months and years ahead.”
This is stunning and deeply troubling news. America is at war — our soldiers and marines are fighting and dying — in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our soldiers and marines must confront an adaptive and resourceful enemy who is not standing still.
An enemy who has black market access to a panoply of high-tech gear and equipment. An enemy who has proven that he can destroy, quite literally, our most battle-hardened tanks and weapons systems. Yet, the President is determined to cut the defense budget. He is determined to eliminate advanced weapons systems for our soldiers and marines.
The incongruence between the defense budget and the domestic social-welfare budget is startling. As Charles Krauthammer put it in the Weekly Standard:
At a time when hundreds of billions of dollars are being lavished on stimulus and other appropriations in an endless array of domestic programs, the defense budget is practically frozen. Almost every other department is expanding, and the Defense Department is singled out for making ‘hard choices’ — forced to look everywhere for cuts, to abandon highly advanced weapons systems, to choose between readiness and research, between today’s urgencies and tomorrow’s looming threats.
Yet, the president told sailors and marines in Jacksonville, Florida: “To make sure you can meet the missions we ask of you, we are increasing the defense budget, including spending on the Navy and Marine Corps.”
No one begrudges spending more on the Navy and Marine Corps, but it is the Army that is bearing the brunt of the burden in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is the Army that will continue to bear the brunt of the burden in 21st Century conflicts. Yet, Army procurement accounts are being cut by some 14%, or $3.5 billion.
Moreover, as General David Petraeus has explained, “You can’t commute to this fight.” Winning in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere will require the sustained, long-term presence of U.S. ground forces; and that means a robust and expeditionary Army.
The defense budget may be increasing, but that’s mainly because, as the president himself acknowledges, the Pentagon is spending more on pay, benefits, medical care, and family wellness programs. Weapons systems and modernization, meanwhile, are being cut.
“To make sure we’re spending our defense dollars wisely,” says the president, “we’re cutting tens of billions of dollars in waste and projects that even the military says it doesn’t need — so that the money can be better spent on taking care of you and your families and building the 21st Century military that we do need.”
This is rich. The weapons systems that the president is eliminating were never spurned by “the Pentagon” (which is hardly a monolith); quite the contrary. The Army, for instance, vigorously championed its only top 10 weapons acquisition program, Future Combat Systems (FCS); and the Air Force still believes that it requires more F-22 fighter jets.
Nonetheless, FCS was eliminated; and the Air Force buckled to Pentagon political pressure after being told that if it insisted on more F-22s, then it would have to sacrifice another weapons system.
To be sure, the Pentagon is spending more on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets for current wartime exigencies. But these are relatively small-scale, niche investments, which pale in comparison to the larger-scale system-wide cuts that imperil our soldiers and marines in harm’s way.
All sorts of facile rationales are offered up for cutting the defense budget, but none of these rationales can withstand critical scrutiny. The president, for instance, has repeated the charge (by the Government Accountability Office) that 96 leading weapons systems have experienced cumulative cost overruns of $296 billion and delays of two years on average.
But as I have explained previously on NewMajority, this is highly misleading and simply not true. As former Pentagon acquisition chief John Young observed in a March 31, 2009 memorandum, “$296 billion is a sensational number that is misleading, out-of-date, and irrelevant to the current DoD procurement process.”
For ideological reasons, the president is committed to cutting defense so that he can spend more on domestic social-welfare programs such as healthcare. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, has accepted an artificially constrained defense budget as a political reality, which he must accept and accommodate.
The Congress, however, is under no such obligation. It can and should fight back against further defense cuts; but thus far it has yet to really do so. The problem has been Senator McCain, who understands little about the defense budget, but who wants, nonetheless, to cut defense in the name of fiscal discipline.
One thing’s for certain. The United States will pay for its military. We will either pay now in dollars, or our soldiers and marines will pay later with their lives lost and crippled. Unfortunately, with the budgetary decisions that they are now making, our elected representatives have made clear which is their preferred payment method.