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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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).