The US defense budget is larger than those of the next seven countries combined, according to the Peterson Foundation(spending) and yet every year we are told that the military is underfunded, aircraft and ships are not well maintained, training is not adequate, and the state of readiness is not good.
The current year DOD budget is $610 billion while China in 2017 had a budget of $228 billion and Russia $66 billion. Part of the difference in these budgets is manpower costs. We have a volunteer force; China and Russia have conscripts. None the less, there is a mismatch between spending and capability and the solution is not simply to increase the budget.
The Peterson Foundation—Strength at Home and Abroad– makes the case that “Our own defense planning is wanting. Due to parochial interests and a lack of political will, we have failed to fully modernize our national security policies to reflect the complex challenges posed by the world today. …Absent reforms, the growth of these costs will either swell the defense budget unsustainably, or squeeze out other areas of national security spending, leading to a hollowing of the force.” These views have been echoed by the Commission on National Defense Strategy.
The basic structure of our military forces is essentially the same as it was during the height of the Cold War even though the threats that we face are much different. The structures that comprise our military establishment influence planning and strategies. But the inertia in any large organization can obstruct the changes needed to meet future needs. So, instead of just building more ships, aircraft, and missiles, we should rebuild our military to address the threats that we are going to face in the coming decades. That might lead to the conclusion that we don’t need four branches that have overlapping roles, that we don’t need $13 billion aircraft carriers or a $100-$300 million F-35 fighter.
The F-35 and the Gerald Ford carrier show what is wrong with the current force planning and weapon acquisition systems. Because of crony capitalism and a military brass that wants more and bigger, these two platforms are not only extremely costly, they show little promise of being mission capable. A DOD review of the F-35 concluded “In fact, the [F-35] program is actually not on a path toward success, but instead is on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities [i.e., full combat capabilities].” The San Diego Union-Tribunedescribed the construction of the Ford as “a monument to the Navy’s and defense industry’s ability to justify spending billions on unproven technologies that often deliver worse performance at a higher cost. Serious questions have been raised as to whether the Ford class will be able to conduct the high-intensity flight operations expected during wartime.”
So, it is fair to ask, what conflicts are they being built for? At one time, the US force structure was intended to be able to fight two full scale conventional conflicts and a smaller conflict. Whether or not that was realistic in the past, it is not now. In addition to Russia and China as the two major military competitors, there are the threats from Iran, North Korea, and conflicts along the lines of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Peterson Foundation set up a Defense Advisory Committee that recommended a strategy of a more flexible U.S. global presence. Such a strategy would be based on agility, technological superiority, and global reach.
The existing services have strong incentives to engage in political horse trading while also attempting to get larger budgets and become larger. That has resulted in budgets much larger than those of our adversaries and reduced operational readiness. The time is ripe to design an armed force that has the capabilities identified by the Peterson Institute and that is more cost effective. That may mean a complete overhaul of the existing services. Do we need both and army and marine corps, an air force as well as naval and marine air? What about the triad. Does it still make sense to have ICBM’s in fixed sites or nuclear bombs on aircraft that are over 50 years old? Why do we need over 3700 nuclear weapons?
These are all tough questions and trying to answer them will run into tremendous opposition from members of Congress, the armed services, and the defense industry. But if they are not addressed, the current readiness situation will get worse and the size of the national debt will constrain how much the DOD budget can grow. In the 1960s, the Rand Corporation published two books—Economic of Defense in the Nuclear Age and How Much is Enough. Those need to be dusted off and used to plan for the future with imagination and innovation,