How long the fighting in Iraq will last is anyone’s guess.
It seems quite certain, however, that mounting war costs will be
wreaking financial havoc on many of the military’s prized
the Pentagon leaked a budget planning document in late December
that mandated $30 billion in weapon procurement cuts, the message
came across loud and clear: big-ticket acquisition programs will
be either scaled back or canceled.
The official rhetoric from the Defense Department is that “everything
is on the table,” but that no drastic decisions will be made
until the completion of the Quadrennial Defense Review, a mandatory
study of military capabilities and missions.
In reality, the Pentagon and the services already have signed off
on a 2007 budget blueprint that probably will not be influenced
by the contents of the QDR. In coming weeks, the Pentagon also is
expected to OK a new military strategy that will call for the services
to structure their forces for unconventional antiterrorist operations,
and will do away with the requirement of having to prepare to fight
two full-scale wars.
The demise of the two-war paradigm should give the Defense Department
enough maneuver room to justify downsizing pricey weapons programs
so it can finance the hefty price tag—approaching $300 billion—of
keeping Army and Marine Corps troops deployed in Iraq. Among the
obvious targets will be Air Force fighter jets and Navy ships.
Not surprisingly, this approach to managing resources is not universally
welcome at the Pentagon, where some senior officials are questioning
the wisdom of letting near-term problems drive long-term strategic
Simply put, is it prudent to scale back traditional weapons systems
when nobody really knows what sort of enemies the United States
will face in 10 or 20 years?
Some decision makers at the Pentagon today are guilty of shortsightedness,
suggests Maj. Gen. Ronald J. Bath, head of strategic planning for
the U.S. Air Force.
The $30 billion budget cut the Defense Department mandated last
year—much of which will come from Air Force programs—is
a clear indicator that short-term thinking is dominating the process
of reshaping the military, Bath tells National Defense. He fears
that the global war on terrorism will drain enough military resources
to jeopardize what he sees as important efforts to ensure the United
States can remain ahead of any competing power in the future.
“I don’t know how long the global war on terrorism
is going to last, but I do know that 20, 30 and 40 years from now,
there will be countries at a strategic crossroads that we have to
think about,” Bath says. “As we do this force construct,
we need to debate our relationship as a superpower, not just short-term
As head representative of the Air Force in the QDR, Bath’s
job is to consider the future as much as possible, he says. “I’m
trying to make them look to 2025.
“The global war on terror will not continue on and on and
on forever. I think we are going to figure out how to get our hands
around this, one way or another … It’s going to get
to the point when the world in general will have to address this.”
Aware of the critics who accuse the Air Force of being parochial
about its expensive fighter jets, Bath contends that the Air Force
has not gotten credit for its own internal budget drills that resulted
in plans to eliminate 10,000 airmen jobs and 650 aircraft from the
inventory within the next two decades.
“I anticipate budget hits between now and 2025, not just
for the Air Force but for everybody,” Bath says. Based on
historical trends alone, the defense budget is headed for a downturn.
Defense spending peaks about every 18 years, he adds. “We
are on the high side of one of those cycles right now. There will
be a turndown before 2025.”
Some Pentagon officials scoff at the notion that the QDR is a budget
drill, but current projections for defense spending leave no doubt
that cost reductions must be factored into any type of strategic
planning, says Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, Air Force assistant deputy
director of strategic planning.
“This is the first time—since the last QDR—when
we were told by the Defense Department leadership not to bring back
a force structure the next time around that was not cost-constrained,”
The Navy faces similar challenges. Fred Newhart, a Navy budget
planner, eloquently sums up the issue during a recent Pentagon “town-hall”
meeting, when he asks Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for his
thoughts on how to cope with steady declines in defense spending.
“Myself and most of my counterparts in the other services,
every year, we’re trying to get the best technology, the best
equipment out to our soldiers and sailors out on the frontline,”
Newhart says to Rumsfeld. “And yet every year, we’re
getting dramatic cuts in the amount of money that we have to do
that … At some point in time, we’re going to end up
killing programs that would benefit the soldiers and sailors. Is
this a continuing trend?”
But Rumsfeld does not buy into that line of thinking.
The Defense Department gets half a trillion dollars a year, which
should be more than enough to buy what the military needs, he replies.
Rumsfeld’s comments in some ways capture the intricacy and
illogic of how spending priorities are set. “I just cannot
accept that there is a money problem,” he says. “I would
characterize it as a persuasion problem.”