Battles Over Military Spending

F-35 Lightning

Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin/U.S. Defense Dept

Battles Over Military Spending
| Published February 25, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Though it will no doubt meet fierce resistance in Congress and even tougher opposition from dozens of governors, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel‘s proposed massive military spending cuts did not come as a total surprise.

After a dozen years of heavy spending on two major wars and the global war on terror, to the tune of hundreds of billions spent in all (over half of that spending was during the period traditionally defined at the Great Recession), it was inevitable that military spending not merely ramp down, but also contract in a measurable way.

Hagel recently announced a reduction in defense spending, down to $496 billion in fiscal year 2015, as part of President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Hagel’s current ramping down also fits into the template of similar reductions already proposed by his predecessor Robert Gates.

But as some military analysts see it, the problem is not so much that the spending will need to be reduced (it will, especially if the United States intends to reduce its deficit while simultaneously increasing spending on health care and social security). The problem is proportion, scale and necessity.

As Thursday Review illustrated in our recent article “The New Navy: Luke, Use The Force,” dazzling technological innovations in weapons systems have been accompanied by fantastical cost-overruns on a scale for which there is little precedent.

The F-35 “Lightning,” for example, a plane which all branches of the military intend to use as a replacement for other attack aircraft, has already become the most expensive weapon every built in U.S. history, and has also earned the dubious distinction of missing every development and testing deadline along the way, including persistent software problems. Nevertheless, its development and construction has become a cash cow for contractors Lockheed Martin and others (United Technologies and Northrop Grumman share some of the workload on the F-35) to the tune of projected hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade or more.

Defenders of the project have pointed out, fairly perhaps, that such complaints are typical with any major weapons system during development and testing. There were critics decades ago who complained that the F-15 was little more than a colossal excuse to spend taxpayer money and make contractors wealthier, and, later, the Abrams tank was derided as the biggest boondoggle ever to have crossed the desks at the Pentagon. Still, both the F-15 and the Abrams tank managed to perform as expected—or better—in actual combat conditions, and in the end the accolades drowned out the chorus from the naysayers.

And plenty of supporters of the F-35 have also pointed out that a recent “60 Minutes” expose on the long history of the new jet fighter was rife with oversimplifications and overstatements drawn mostly from critics of military spending, and that its now infamous software problems have in fact been exactly the sort of challenges one would expect from such a complex and audacious weapon system. Example: F-35 pilots, properly equipped, will be fitted with a top-secret visor and helmet which will enable each aviator to see—quite literally—in all directions through powerful image sensors embedded in the skin of the plane. Sci-fi meets real-world applications.

Except that each of those visors will cost roughly a half a million to produce (for now).

When completed, and deployed, the military brass hopes the F-35 will be a game-changer. Properly trained pilots will have dominion in the skies above nearly every conceivable conflict in any part of the world, and, in theory, this precision and effectiveness will make overall defense spending more efficient. In other words: smarter weapons, smarter pilots and smarter tools equal less cost.

Similar exotic weapons systems are also nearing completion, some only months away from field or at-sea testing, including a powerful laser system which has already been tested on land but will be fired shipboard soon, and an electromagnetic rail gun (it has nothing to do with railroads!) which can fire inert projectiles at six times the speed of sound, which, at 4500 miles per hour can turn a non-lethal, inexpensive hunk of—anything—into a lethal projectile. (One Thursday Review reader in Virginia wrote “so instead of firing costly exploding shells, we can hurl cans of tomato sauce and treated lumber from Home Depot?)

But expensive high-tech guns and lasers aside, it is the F-35 (officially known as the F-35 Joint Strike Force Fighter, the preferred moniker for a plane being carefully tailored not merely to each branch of the U.S. military, but also to a dozen U.S. allies as well) which has received the majority of the bad press lately.

Accompanying the development of the F-35 are several plans to invest in newer, more efficient jet engine systems. When the faster engines design is tied effectively to the Lightning program, some at the Pentagon believe strongly that the F-35 could become the basic design for military aviation for many decades into the future, and the scuttlebutt is that the plane is being developed with future, as yet unknown and unimagined, enhancements and upgrades in mind. Think about what it would mean to you if you could buy one computer designed to outlast all upgrades, firmware and software advances for 40 years.

At least that’s the way supporters of the F-35 want you to view it. Arizona Senator John McCain has described the F-35 as possibly “the greatest combat aircraft in the history of the world,” quite an endorsement from the former aviator.

Hagel also announced the retirement of a few much older weapons systems, including the U2 (if you are old enough to remember U2 as a high-altitude spy plane and not a, Irish rock band, then good for you too!) and the A-10 attack plane (itself the subject of much hand-wringing and debate back when it was being developed).

But the biggest issue for some was a planned reduction in total uniformed personnel. Hagel has proposed an overall six percent reduction—down to about 490,000 by the end of next year, and to 450,000 by the end of 2019. Major media outlets have pounced upon this figure and frequently compared it to pre-World War II numbers. CNN and CBS both termed the proposed total as “less than the start of WWII,” which is accurate neither technically nor comparatively since total U.S. men in uniform numbered about 188,000 in 1939, 620,00 by the end of 1940 and roughly 1,460,000 by the summer of 1941—months before Pearl Harbor. Such media oversimplifications will no doubt skew the arguments—pro and con—regarding military spending which is both appropriate and balanced.

Hagel was also careful to offer a counter-argument to the personnel numbers, suggesting that U.S. Special Operations forces be increased, from 66,000 to nearly 70,000, along with the requisite growth of highly specialized training. Hagel says that Special Ops are “uniquely suited” for the combat of the future.

Predictably, the most contentious part of Hagel’s package will be proposed base closings within the U.S., which often turn into political footballs for members of Congress. Hagel has also proposed some overseas base closings and base downsizing, which does not require Congressional approval.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney called the cuts “devastating,” and told Sean Hannity on Fox News that the cuts will do “enormous long-term damage to the military.” Cheney said that such spending cannot be simply turned off and then back on again like transportation or highway funding. Cheney acknowledged that the cuts were brought about by extreme budget pressures, and not because of military priorities.

Still, some defense analysts say that the new technological advances—and a leaner, smarter military posture—represent the inevitable direction of combat readiness. Proponents of the newer weapons systems say that despite those eye-popping price tags, the high tech weaponry will be necessary to fight what many feel will be the wars of the future against adversaries like China or Russia, or in strategically complex theaters such as Iran, North Korea or in the Middle East.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The New Navy: “Luke, Use the Force”; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review, February 25, 2014.