Soldiers Versus Defense Contractors

Editorial

New York Times

December 15, 2005

It's what passes for crunch time at the Pentagon. Word has now gone out that $32 billion in savings must be found out of the $2.3 trillion the Defense Department is planning to spend in the next five years. After the Pentagon's spending orgy over the past five years, there is plenty of scope for cutting, without weakening America's defenses - but only if the cuts come out of the most costly and least needed Air Force and Navy weapons programs, not from the money required to replenish and re-equip the Army and Marine ground forces that have been worn down by Iraq.

Alleviating the dangerous strain on America's overstretched, underrested and increasingly taxed land-based forces must be the Pentagon's highest priority for the next five years. Even if it becomes possible to draw down some fraction of the troops now in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall size of America's land forces needs to be increased to reverse the declines in readiness and morale, help recruiting, and reduce the reliance on the Reserves for overseas combat.

America cannot be a global military power without a healthy Army. Without significant new investment to add and train more soldiers, the Army's strength will continue to deteriorate.

Very few critics of the military's spending priorities want the United States to relinquish its current dominance in the skies and on the seas. But in a world where no rival military powers are remotely capable of challenging America, that dominance can be preserved without loading every new plane and ship with every conceivable technological marvel, whether or not it is relevant to the military mission at hand.

Much of the astounding 41 percent increase in military spending over the past five years has gone toward hugely expensive air and sea combat systems - and this in an era when America's toughest battles are being fought on land against foes that have no known air force or navy.

The Air Force and the Navy can play only secondary roles in wars like Iraq. Their spending plans are increasingly oriented toward the possibility of future military conflict with China. That is not totally absurd. China's military planning is increasingly oriented toward the possibility of future conflict with the United States, like, for example, a clash over the Taiwan Strait. But war with China is a remote, unlikely and avoidable contingency. It should not dominate current military spending - especially if China is simply being used as an excuse to justify expensive equipment the Pentagon wants to buy. Given the huge lead the United States now holds in air and sea technology, the Navy and Air Force can be re-equipped with everything they really need at a more realistic and affordable pace.

The Air Force should step up the pace of its introduction of unpiloted drones, which can be used for surveillance and for attacks. They are much cheaper than fighter jets and do not risk pilots' lives. The Navy should rely more on larger numbers of cheaper and lighter naval craft instead of cold-war-style attack submarines and expensive behemoths like the new DD(X) destroyer. It should also shift more of its forces from active duty to reserve status, where they can still be trained and kept ready for future contingencies while freeing up dollars to spend on badly needed additional ground troops.

Once expensive planes, ships and other weapons systems find their way into the budget, they are very hard to stop, even when changes in the global military environment make them no longer smart defense investments. Whether they are really needed or not, they remain profit centers for military contractors and a source of well-paying jobs for the Congressional districts where they are built.

But in a world of finite resources, excessive spending on the wrong weapons comes at the expense of real military needs, like building up America's ground forces. Surely $2.3 trillion over the next five years, allocated wisely, ought to be enough to provide for all of America's military needs in all likely combat contingencies. It would be scandalous to spend that kind of money and still come up short in real wars like Iraq.