The Magazine

Chicken Little Is Right

Don't look now, but our planes are falling out of the sky.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
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On an early November day in the skies over southern Indiana, Maj. Steve Stilwell of the Missouri Air National Guard's 131st Fighter Wing was honing his air-to-air combat skills. As he threw his F-15 into a turn, he stressed his big Eagle at two to three times the force of gravity, a relatively gentle maneuver in the world of dogfighting. But it proved to be more than the 27-year-old fighter could handle: It began to shake violently, paralyzing Stilwell's left arm, and then the fuselage shattered just behind the cockpit. As the rear bulk of the plane fell away, Stilwell shot forward. "I kept telling myself: I gotta get out, I gotta get out," Stilwell remembered to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "I found the ejection handle. .  .  . I am a little concerned why a plane would break in half."

Stilwell isn't the only one. Four days later, the Air Force grounded its fleet of F-15Cs--about 450 aircraft--and not for the first time. The grounding remains in effect. The fighters, approaching an average age of 30 years, "have become serious maintenance challenges as they get older, and now I'd suggest that we may be facing a crisis," says Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the former F-15 pilot who is the Air Force's head of intelligence. Deptula also reports that his pilot son is flying the very same F-15 that he flew in the late 1970s.

Stilwell's story tells you a lot about the state of the U.S. military, and especially its equipment. The old gear is wearing out. Like a lot of other major weapons platforms in all four services, the F-15C is a design from the late Cold War that's pulling frontline duty decades beyond what was originally planned. The new gear--in this case, the F-22 Raptor--is being bought in far smaller numbers and years later than intended. And, in an almost impossibly perverse twist, production of the F-22 comes to an end with the 2008 budget, at just 183 planes. The air superiority mission these fighters perform, regarded as an American birthright for generations, is suddenly an open question: After the Stilwell crash, at a time when Russian bombers have resumed Cold War-style patrols, the Canadian Air Force volunteered its F-18s to help police the skies over Alaska. One wonders if the Canadians or other allies would be so helpful over Iran or the Taiwan Strait.

The fact is that, despite committing--correctly, in our view--the United States to an ambitious security strategy, the Bush administration has not done enough to build the force that can carry out that strategy.

How can this be? As we are told over and over again, the United States is now spending in real, inflation-adjusted dollars more money on defense than at any time since the Vietnam war. And isn't the U.S. defense budget larger than those of all the major powers of the world combined? How much is enough?

Well, even the short answer has five parts. First, we now have an all-volunteer force that costs a lot more when it comes to personnel, insurance, housing, and retirement benefits than our previous draft-heavy force. Unless Americans and their representatives in Washington want to return to conscription, which no one except Rep. Charles Rangel seems ready to do, fielding a force is just going to be a lot more costly. Second, the weapons and platforms we buy are fewer in number, and partly as a result we ask them to do more. That in turn drives costs up. Third, one reason we spend more than others is that with the major exception of China virtually everyone else cut spending at the end of the Cold War and has kept cutting. Fourth, unless we want a whole different global security order, the burden of keeping the peace in the world remains largely in America's hands, as manifest in the fact that we have gone to war multiple times since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, finally, yes, we do spend a lot, but we are also fighting two wars.

America's core defense budget remains relatively modest for all the tasks the American military is asked to accomplish. Depending on what one includes in the accounting, the base budget for defense stands now just over or just shy of $500 billion. Certainly, that is a lot of money, but as a burden on the economy it remains approximately 3.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP)--a figure only a half percentage point higher than where the Clinton administration left it in 2001 and a whole percentage point lower than when George H.W. Bush walked out of the Oval Office in 1993. (No wonder the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, calls for defense spending at 4 percent of GDP.)

The defense deficit that was created during the Clinton years was never really fixed. On the manpower side, the Clinton cuts have only begun to be made up as the stress of fighting two ground-intensive wars has forced the Bush administration to increase the strength of the Marines and the Army. Even when the modest increases now programmed are fully implemented--a process that will take five more years--the active U.S. Army will still be just a bit more than two-thirds the size it was in 1991. When it comes to materiel, the "procurement holiday" of the '90s was followed by the Rumsfeld years, when the Pentagon focused first on "transformation" and then on the wars. While our planes aged, Donald Rumsfeld also slowed Army and Marine Corps modernization, allowed the Navy to shrink, and let our space program drift and deteriorate. As defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich has remarked, since 9/11 we have seen a largely "hollow build-up," one filled with funds for operations, maintenance, readiness, and health care--but not weapons.

The procurement budget to replace and buy new weapon systems and platforms has increased, of course--but not enough. In their first six years, the Clinton team reduced the Bush administration's last budget projections for procurement by more than $160 billion. In 2000, the Congressional Budget Office argued that some $90 billion a year was needed to hold procurement steady. The procurement budget for that year was $55 billion. But note that the George W. Bush team did not reach the $90 billion mark until 2005, and even then dropped back below that figure the following two years. Add inflation since 2000 and the unexpected wear and tear of two wars on equipment and the gap between what we need to buy and the projected budgets for doing so grows even wider.

The administration's strategy for squaring this circle has largely been to cut the number of platforms being acquired--like the F-22--or drag out development and procurement--as with the Navy's proposed new fleet of destroyers and cruisers. Yet, even so, the budget numbers are inadequate to cover the Pentagon's projected 2,500 Joint Strike Fighters (F-35s), hundreds of new air-refueling tankers, a raft of new surface combatants, and additional submarines.

The budget picture turns even bleaker when one factors in acquiring a new constellation of space assets and the new bomber or global strike capability we will probably need to develop. And land force modernization has been slowed by the immediate demand to repair or replace losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the "emergency supplemental" wartime appropriations were slow to take equipment needs into account; the situation has improved, but as recently as a year ago, the Army had a backlog of two full divisions' worth of M1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles at its repair depots.

There is some good news. Among the leading presidential candidates, no one is explicitly arguing for cutting the defense budget, as some did in 1992. And there seems to be bipartisan consensus that increasing the size of our land forces is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this won't be enough. As Fred Thompson noted in a speech at the Citadel in November, either we spend more and build up our military "and deter war, or we can allow our forces to wither and risk conflict." Of course, it will take real leadership to explain to the American people that, despite all they have heard about the size of the U.S. defense budget, it's not going to be enough if they want a military that can safely retain its position of global preeminence and effectively deter, police, assist, and fight, as it has been asked to do numerous times since the end of the Cold War.

During the 2000 campaign and in response to the conservatives' charge that the Clinton administration had neglected our defenses, then candidate Dick Cheney famously declared, "Help is on the way." Alas, it will be up to the next president to fulfill that promise.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow and Gary Schmitt a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are coeditors and contributors to Of Men and Materiel: The Crisis in Military Resources (AEI Press, 2007).