Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Politics is killing the Pentagon

Politics is killing the Pentagon:

As America returns to war in the Middle East, ramps up for new problems from Russia, battles Ebola in Africa and continues the “pivot” to Asia, the capacity of the U.S. military is once again front and center. But Washington is in denial about two major realities: The U.S. military’s technological edge is eroding, and politics is killing the Pentagon. All too soon, America won’t be able to take on this range of challenges. Indeed, it’s not even clear that we still can today.

At a recent Democratic Party event, President Obama boasted that, “American military superiority has never been greater compared to other countries.” But the opposite is true. Earlier this year, the Pentagon acquisition chief contradicted his boss: “Technological superiority is not assured, and we cannot be complacent about our posture. This is not a future problem; this is a ‘here now’ problem.”

U.S. military technological superiority has been declining across the services and warfighting domains for years now. It’s common knowledge in the defense community, but as with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the intelligence community, no one in the White House appears to be listening. The buildup in defense-related federal research and development (R&D) spending that began in the 1940s and persisted through the 1980s was responsible for propelling many of the pivotal technological breakthroughs of the 20th century, including jet engines, avionics systems, weather satellites, electronic computers, computer software and graphics, GPS and cellphones. And that innovation has propelled the U.S. military to the pinnacle of world power — until now.

The decline is already evident in today’s force. U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear put it starkly: “Our historic dominance that most of us in this room have enjoyed is diminishing, no question.” The military’s equipment is old and therefore unreliable, increasingly out-of-date technologically and insufficient in number. Within the next five or so years, China is projected to have a modern navy approaching 350 ships. The best the Pentagon can hope for is “about 300” ships around the same time. Worse, other prolific arms exporters, including Russia and China, are starting to gain an edge in sectors like precision munitions and battle networks. China is investing in anti-ship, anti-satellite, counter-space, hypersonic weapons and advanced cyber capabilities, with Russia close behind in cutting-edge information and cyber operations, and even sophisticated training and logistics, all while the U.S. continues to hitch a ride on Russian aircraft into space.

In addition, a predisposition to think about R&D spending as a burden and not a source of strength is now ingrained. Not only are other countries outpacing the U.S. in government research and select defense spending, but they are also thinking about the very idea of investment differently. In the United States, R&D spending is expensed, adding an immediate negative to a firm’s balance sheet and reducing profits. In Japan, for example, R&D spending is capitalized with costs spread out over several years, reducing the incentive to cut investment as a short-term strategy to increase profits.

This is why additional dollars for the war budget — an idea many politicians are throwing around right now — are not the same as new money for the annual Pentagon budget. Current combat operations are paid for through supplemental spending outside the regular federal budget. These funds are for necessary, but perishable, priorities. They typically do not pay for any investment in technological dominance, adequate numbers of uniformed forces and equipment to meet global demands, or all the logistical and back-office support that comes with maintaining the world’s largest military.

The other factor conspiring to prevent a renewal of American military strength is politicians’ unwillingness to rationalize the defense budget. It’s imperative that Congress act to retire legacy weapons systems like the A-10 Warthog, shed the 20 percent of excess base volume here at home, reduce civilian manpower levels (even as active-duty forces have been cut precipitously) and change how those in uniform are paid. Congress’s unwillingness to make hard choices has created internal defense inflation so large that it now comes at the direct expense of the combat power we need in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

In other words, today’s defense dollars just don’t go as far. While the defense budget grew 42 percent in real terms over the past decade, the number of active duty personnel grew by just 3 percent. After 2001, most of the new money went toward consumables relating to Iraq and Afghanistan — not increases in the U.S. military’s cutting-edge capabilities like more long-range aircraft capable of operating in contested airspace, next-generation missiles and weapons, and modern space and satellite assets. Not to speak of those F-22s we’re using against ISIS (production terminated); early retirements for our fighter and bomber fleets, including the F-16, F-15 and B-1 fleets now in the fight; or the Tomahawk missiles being fired from the Mediterranean Sea (Obama wants to close the line).

The defense drawdown of the last six years has been unlike any other in modern times. It is modest in percentage and dollar terms, but steeper in practical effect and reduced output. What is essentially a 20 percent cut in spending will feel more like double when it is over. But as growing crises abroad build momentum for reversing America’s latest builddown, there is a real risk policymakers will spend any new money on the wrong priorities. It’s time for Congress to man up, cut the programs the military doesn’t need, ashcan the bureaucrats the country doesn’t need and begin to fund current operations, to be sure, and investment for the future. Otherwise, next time it will be Ebola or ISIS. Not both.