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Ready for What? The New Politics of Pentagon Spending

President Clinton's plan to increase Pentagon spending by $112 billion over the next six years to boost "military readiness" has more to do with domestic budget politics than it does with global military needs.
 
 
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President Clinton's plan to increase Pentagon spending by $112 billion over the next six years to boost "military readiness" has more to do with domestic budget politics than it does with global military needs.The President's rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no threat to U.S. interests that can possibly justify the largest increase in the Pentagon budget since the Reagan era. Current U.S. arms spending of $276 billion per year is already more than twice as much as the combined military budgets of every conceivable U.S. adversary, including Russia, China, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria, and Cuba. Furthermore, the United States and its closest allies -- in NATO, South Korea, and Japan -- now account for nearly two-thirds of world military expenditures, a substantially higher proportion of global arms budgets than obtained at the height of the Reagan buildup.The main problems facing U.S. forces have to do with misguided priorities, not inadequate funding. Spending tens of billions of dollars on new fighter planes, attack submarines, and Star Wars missile defenses -- as Clinton has proposed -- will have little or no impact on the main threats to U.S. interests: regional instability, terrorism, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological weapons). And designing U.S. forces to fight two large (but extrmemely unlikely) regional conflicts simultaneously will continue to drain resources from preparing for the peacekeeping missions that U.S. forces are facing with increasing frequency.The real readiness crisis in our armed forces is at the top, where our Commander-in-Chief, the Pentagon, and the Congressional leadership have all failed to wean themselves from the outmoded strategies and weapons of the Cold War and come up with a more intelligent, forward-looking blueprint for defending U.S. interests. Ready to Spend: The New Politics of the Pentagon BudgetThe real reasons for the proposed Clinton/Gore military buildup are political and economic, not military. The pending Pentagon feeding frenzy is firmly grounded on the twin pillars of pork barrel politics and political positioning.Last spring, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the military budget would remain steady at about $270 billion per year through 2002, as called for in the 1997 balanced budget agreement between the White House and the Congressional leadership. But the assumption of a steady state defense budget changed dramatically in the fall of 1998, when both the Republicans in Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that a President facing impeachment charges was ripe to be roughed up on the issue of military spending. Given his history of yielding to the top military brass on major personnel and spending issues (in part as a way to seek political cover for his own lack of military service), Clinton was an easy target.The Joint Chiefs fired the opening salvo in September, when they invited Clinton to Fort McNair (in Washington D.C.) for a "closed-door" briefing at which they read him their wish lists on everything from military pay and weapons procurement to fresh paint jobs for neglected military bases. The details of the session were promptly leaked to the press by a "senior defense official,"complete with an anti-Clinton spin that was summarized by Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times as follows: "It has not escaped notice in the Pentagon that the accusations against Mr. Clinton" having a sexual relationship with a subordinate and lying about it "would end the career of any officer, including each of the men who sat around the table with Mr. Clinton this afternoon." The implication was that if the President agreed to throw more money at the Pentagon, all would be forgiven.Clinton got the message. A week after the Joint Chiefs had called him out to the wood shed at Fort McNair, Clinton sent a letter to Secretary of Defense William Cohen in which he signaled his willingness to seek increases in military spending and pledged that "the men and women of our armed forces will have the resources they need to do their jobs."There was just one small problem with the President's promise: under the 1997 balanced budget accord, Pentagon spending was capped at about $270 billion per year. The only options for spending more would be to break the balanced budget agreement, slash domestic programs, or find some budgetary sleight-of-hand that would allow the President to avoid these politically painful trade-offs. In the short-term, Clinton chose smoke-and-mirrors, in the form of a $1.1 billion "emergency" increase for military readiness that he sought as a last minute add-on to the F.Y. 1999 budget.The vehicle for providing the President's infusion of readiness funds to the Pentagon was the catch-all budget bill that the White House and Capitol Hill cobbled together in October 1998. But in the inevitable horse-trading that was needed to close the deal, Congress transformed Clinton's relatively modest readiness increase into what the Council for a Livable World described as a "$9 billion grab bag of pet projects." The bill included an extra $1 billion for Star Wars missile defense systems, $2 billion for intelligence operations (including money for then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's half-baked plan to arm Iraqi opposition groups), and more than $900 million for the military and Coast Guard to pursue their ill-conceived "war on drugs." The final budget also allowed at least $5 billion in what Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has described as the "worst pork" in recent memory, including over $400 million for unrequested C-130 transport planes (built at a Lockheed Martin plant just outside of Newt Gingrich's Georgia district) and a down payment on a $1.5 billion helicopter carrier for the Marines built in Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi.The multi-billion dollar add-on for the Pentagon was matched by a comparable investment on the domestic side of the budget, including a seed fund designed to stimulate the hiring of 100,000 new teachers nationwide. Aside from a few grumpy fiscal conservatives who were alarmed at the ease with which the balanced budget caps were cast aside to make way for nearly $20 billion in new programs, the package offered something for everyone: military hawks could point to billions in new funds for the Pentagon, while liberals could take pride in the new funding for education. Critics of excessive military spending were completely outflanked as the existence of the first budget surplus in decades shifted the Washington debate from "guns versus butter" to "more guns and more butter."The antics of October offered a preview of the main event in January, when Clinton announced his plan for a six year, $112 billion increase in Pentagon spending. Senate Republicans promptly upped the ante by calling in the Joint Chiefs of Staff to grill them on how on earth they could do without the full $150 billion, six year increase contained in the wish lists they had presented to the President and the Congress last year. So, within less than a year's time, the Washington debate had shifted from how to carry out the Pentagon's ambitious objectives within current spending levels to how much to increase military spending. And a bi-partisan coalition, led by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) and Rep. Norman Dicks (D-WA), is already hatching plans to add another $5 to $15 billion on top of the President's proposed military spending increase for F.Y. 2000.From Politics to Policy: Is There a Readiness Crisis?Assuming that pork barrel politics and political posturing are business-as-usual in Washington, an underlying question remains: is there a readiness crisis in the U.S. armed forces? The short answer is no: U.S. troops are far better prepared and far better armed than any adversary they are likely to face in the next decade or more, whether or not the Pentagon builds any of the expensive new weapons systems it has in the pipeline.The weapons that won Operation Desert Storm and the many smaller encounters with Iraq that have followed in its wake are more than adequate to meet the threat of conventional conflicts with so-called "rogue states" like Iraq, North Korea, and Iran for at least ten to fifteen years. As Harvey Sapolsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has amply documented, the Army, Navy, and Air Force already have more top-of-the-line tanks, combat ships, and fighter planes than they know what to do with.Given the absence of a major superpower rival like the Soviet Union that has a large, well-funded weapons development and production complex of its own, the U.S. military would be better served by a less frantic procurement strategy that involved replacing worn out equipment with small numbers of current generation fighters, ships, and combat vehicles. This approach, would save tens of billions of dollars that could be spent on fuel, spare parts, pay raises and the other "nuts and bolts" items that can help keep U.S. forces in fighting shape.The most legitimate aspect of the readiness problem has do to with retaining skilled personnel. There are a relatively robust civilian economy luring pilots, computer specialists, and other trained people out of the military services. On the other hand, punishing deployment schedules for peacekeeping and enforcement missions in Iraq and Bosnia are taking a personal toll on key service people and their families.It is interesting to note that even with all of the sound and fury about helping "the troops," the largest increases in Clinton's six year plan go to the big three weapons contractors -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. While military pay and benefits are slated to go up by a healthy 22 percent between now and 2005, spending on big ticket weapons will grow at more than twice that rate, or 53 percent in all. In the budgetary battle that is know inside the Pentagon as "the boys versus the toys" (troops versus weapons purchases), the toys are winning.As William Grieder argues in his indispensable new book, Fortress America, the Pentagon's readiness woes are rooted in its inability to adapt to a new era: "The military is committed to maintaining a gigantic scale and structure inherited from the Cold War, but with reduced resources for the workaday tasks of training people and maintaining an active state of readiness." In short, until the Pentagon is willing to re-think its Cold War strategy and wean itself from the high-priced, gold-plated weapons systems that were favored during that era, there will be a chronic mismatch between the resources available for defense and the short-term needs of the men and women charged with making the military work. The Third Way: Downsizing the PentagonIn addition to instituting better management practices and cutting back on politically-driven pork, the Pentagon and the military services desperately need a clarification of their mission in the post-Cold War period. Despite two major strategy reviews in this decade, the so-called Bottom Up Review and the more recent Quadrennial Defense Review, there has been no significant re-focusing of the U.S. military's major strategic goals. Official policy still calls for U.S. forces to be in a position to fight two major regional conflicts (one in the Middle East and one in Asia) nearly simultaneously, and the regional powers that the Pentagon uses to "size" its forces are several times more powerful than either Iraq or North Korea, the most likely U.S. adversaries in these areas. Furthermore, the two war strategy depends on costly, cumbersome weapons platforms such as heavy battle tanks, massive aircraft carriers, and gold-plated combat aircraft that may have some value if U.S. forces get to re-fight the 1991 Persian Gulf War ad infinitum, but have little relevance to peacekeeping, or fighting terrorism, or combatting next generation adversaries who may rely on highly mobile forces, cruise missiles and "smart" weapons to counter U.S. superiority in more traditional combat systems.A more prudent strategy would begin by abandoning the two war strategy -- which maverick Pentagon analyst Franklin Spinney has described as nothing more than "a marketing device for a high Pentagon budget" -- and replacing it with a strategy based on one major regional conflict plus peacekeeping. This would allow for modest additional force reductions (from current levels of 1.4 million active duty personnel down to 1.2 million), and imply a change in the mix of weaponry purchased by the services to focus more on lighter, more mobile systems.A more realistic strategy should also include a moratorium on the purchase of major new big ticket items -- such as the F-18 and F-22 fighter aircraft, 30-50 new attack submarines, and two additional aircraft carriers -- in order to free up $10 to $20 billion per year in procurement funds. A small fraction of these savings could be utilized to replace current generation systems as needed (e.g., replacing F-16s with the latest model F-16 instead of the F-22, which costs 4 times as much per copy). An additional increment of perhaps $5 billion per year could be reserved for research on novel systems such as the Navy's proposed "arsenal ship," which could potentially provide a much cheaper way to get cruise missiles to zones of conflict than sending a $17 billion aircraft carrier task force.Progress on any one of these fronts -- military management, more responsible Congressional oversight, or implementing a more realistic strategy -- would eliminate the need for any increase in military spending. Moving on all three at once could set the stage for substantial cuts, in the range of $40 to $50 billion per year. But getting from here to there will require either decisive presidential leadership, a quality that has been in short supply on military issues in recent years, or a sustained public outcry that will force Congress and the White House to put the Pentagon on a real budget that involves making hard choices among competing demands.William D. Hartung is the Presidential Fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York City. This article was adapted from a longer piece that will appear in the spring issue of the World Policy Journal (forthcoming).A longer version of this article originally will appear in the World Policy Journal.