Wisely Spending Our Defense Dollars

Retired Army LTC Andrew Krepinevich has a devastating critique of the recent Quadrennial Defense Review in the current issue of Military Officer, the trade journal of the Military Officers’ Association.

Especially interesting is his assessment of how the Pentagon plans to allocate its not-all-that-scarce budget. He notes that there are several big ticket items that are crippling the ability to fund much-needed programs that are holdovers from a much different strategic era:

  • The Army’s Future Combat System, projected to cost nearly $150 billion, was conceived to exploit information technologies to defeat enemy tank forces at a distance – but none of our existing or prospective enemies are building a new version of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard armored force.
  • The Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer, at roughly $4 billion a copy, is a firepower platform. Yet the naval challenge from China, if it comes, will be centered on its submarine force, a threat against which the DDG-1000 is irrelevant.
  • The Pentagon’s F-35 fighter program is by far the most expensive program in the defense budget, at more than $250 billion. These fighters are designed to sweep enemy aircraft from the skies and strike targets on the ground. But al-Qaida has no air force, and the most worrisome strike systems being fielded by China, North Korea, and Iran are ballistic missiles, not fighter aircraft.
  • The Marine Corps’ V-22 aircraft, designed to hover like a helicopter and fly like a plane, has become so expensive that it cannot be built in large numbers. Meanwhile, the aging helicopter fleet the V-22 is designed to replace is wearing out at an alarming rate, owing to the high pace of operations in Iraq.

The Pentagon’s unwillingness to scale back these programs, or in some cases terminate them, will allow them to generate “program momentum.” As they consume ever more funding, their constituencies in the military, Congress, and the defense industry will grow. Consequently, other QDR initiatives that might enable our military to meet new threats risk being starved of funding in their infancy. Among the most promising are:

These make it much more difficult to find more important and less costly programs:

  • a one-third increase in the number of SOF battalions, America’s most heavily deployed units in the war against radical Islamists;
  • a new long-range strike aircraft designed to loiter for protracted periods over the battlefield, whether searching for terrorist targets in remote areas or missile launchers deep inside Iran or China;
  • programs and forces to cope with detecting, tracking, and disabling WMD, particularly nuclear weapons that enemies might attempt to smuggle into the U.S.;
  • medical countermeasures against bioterrorism threats (here the Pentagon is adding $1.5 billion over five years – less than half the cost of a single DDG-1000 destroyer);
  • modernizing our air tanker refueling fleet to replace aging aircraft that date back to the 1950s. These aircraft have been in great demand since the Cold War’s end. Their ability to refuel reconnaissance and strike aircraft in flight helps in the effort to maintain something approximating an “unblinking” eye over the battlefield to search and engage high-value targets such as terrorist leaders, “loose nukes,” or mobile missile launchers armed with WMD; and
  • increasing our submarine production to send a clear signal to China as well as our allies that Beijing cannot expect to threaten U.S. freedom of action in an area of vital interest or coerce America’s friends and allies in East Asia.

Which set of capabilities best reflects the QDR’s assessment of the principal challenges before us? Which would be most useful in tracking terrorists in remote areas of Africa and Central Asia? Dealing with a destabilized Pakistan or Saudi Arabia – al-Qaida’s two principal targets? Thwarting radical Islamist attempts to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S.? Conducting persistent extended searches for North Korean nuclear-tipped missiles emerging from their caves to launch an attack? Deflecting the efforts of China’s submarines, 10 years hence, to threaten the U.S. Navy’s ability to defend Taiwan from coercion or aggression?

Clearly it is the infant initiatives spawned by the QDR, which cost but a fraction of the legacy programs whose principal focus is on traditional forms of warfare that the QDR rightly notes are of progressively less relevance.

It’s easy to see why this misalignment occurs. The military services generally and the Air Force and Navy especially are built around technologically impressive weapons platforms that require years of R&D. If we guess wrong, it is incredibly difficult to acquire them in time for an unexpected war. We’ve learned that lesson time and again at the cost of considerable American blood.

Of course, we continually need to re-learn the lesson that a force designed around beating the most modern, powerful military foe imaginable is not automatically capable of shifting gears and fighting asymmetric battles against guerrillas.

Military operations over the past 15 years have demonstrated that when America’s enemies challenge us in traditional warfare, as in the two Gulf wars and in the Balkans, air power can play an important, if not dominant, role. While all four services should maintain a significant residual capability for traditional warfare, the Army and Marine Corps should be able to migrate more capabilities into other challenge areas than either the Air Force or the Navy.

In addition to rebalancing service forces and capabilities to address irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive challenges to U.S. security, the military needs to undertake key institutional changes. Among them are:

  • refocusing the professional military education system to emphasize the study of Asia in general and radical Islam and China in particular. Irregular warfare is also in need of increased emphasis;
  • changing the focus of intelligence operations to place much greater emphasis on human intelligence than in the recent past;
  • ensuring that today’s officers become “biosciences-literate” owing to the prospect of biological weapons becoming available to hostile non-state entities that may prove difficult, if not impossible, to deter;
  • continuing to transform the training infrastructure to better account for irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive challenges to U.S. security; and
  • restructuring the force to enable sufficient forces to be sustained in protracted irregular conflict.
    The Navy and Marine Corps long ago established a rotation base for their forces. More recently, significant progress is being made in this area, with the Air Expeditionary Forces and the Army’s modularity initiative. However, these forces are oriented primarily toward traditional challenges.

Addressing these challenges remains an uphill struggle. As noted previously, the Services have an interest in the current model. So, too, does Congress, which loves to spend large sums on acquistion programs that pump money into the civilian economy, especially in the states and districts of powerful committee chairmen. Defense intellectuals and the Special Operations establishment, the strongest advocates for the contrary position, are in a very weak position to combat these institutional forces.

Via OTB roving correspondent Richard Gardner.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Remember Eisenhower’s parting shot about the Military Industrial Complex? The brass and their friends in the contractor world make sure they get paid first. It’s the ultimate self-licking ice cream cone.

  2. Kent G. Budge says:

    You hint at what’s really going on, but I’ll spell it out: The U.S. armed forces don’t want to plan for a war against Al Quaeda. They want to plan for a war against China or a resurgent Russia. This (possibly subconscious) bias is reflected in the desire to couple high tech with earthshattering firepower.

    Curiously, an opposite mentality seems to govern the nuclear defense establishment. I can’t say too much, but my impression is that RRW is a fairly realistic concept for the future deterrent. (Disclosure: I work at LANL.) But then I’m told that, within DoD, the nuclear warriors are regarded as the crazy aunt in the attic that no one wants to talk about.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Tom Barnett has been complaining about this for years: the DoD is bound and determined to plan for a near-peer conflict even though no near-peers are presenting themselves. I don’t completely blame the career civilian staff and military for this. You can’t turn a bureaucracy like DoD on a time. People tend to keep doing what’s worked for them in the past and when you’ve built your career on the notion of a high-tech conflict with a near-peer enemy you’ll be strongly inclined to keep viewing that as the main threat that we face today.

  4. There is a saying that the military mind tends to plan for the last war (or in our case the current war), rather than the next war. If we have an all out war with China, the weapon systems your deride would be very valuable and not easily substituted or quickly brought on line. I agree that we need to be sure and have the tools to fight this current war. But we also need to have the tools to prevent, or if prevention fails, to fight the next war. If you see no possibility of conflict with China, then you aren’t reading enough history. If all we have is a military designed to do street searches and explore caves, that would be as bad as a military that could only defend against hordes of Russian tanks coming through Fulda gap.

  5. MichaelB says:

    Most of that criticism is not really sensible though. The F-35 is an expensive new fighter – but it is also supposed to replace existing fighters. F-16s and F-15s that were designed more then 25 years ago, and are reaching the end of their service lives over the next couple decades. If those fighters are not replaced, then the US won’t have an air force either. Such a scenario may make for a ‘fair fight’, but would be disastrous for American security. The hard truth is that maintaining a military with something like 12-13 thousand aircraft means substantial ongoing investment in all sorts of kinds of craft.

    Consider also the suggestion that we need more subs. During the 1990s when Seawolf class production was cut off at 3, with an almost 10 year gap planned into production . Why? Because the USSR was defeated and we didn’t need subs anymore. About a dozen Los Angeles class subs were decommissioned instead of refueled – even though that would have been far less expensive then building the new Virginia class ships that are suggested above. Now we’re told we need subs again – maybe we should be a little cautious about saying “we don’t need those capabilities anymore” in the future. Certainly the post cold war “We don’t need much anti-submarine warfare capability” attitude has backfired, and will be expense to fix

    Defense procurement takes a long time. Major weapons systems have life-cycles measured in decades. Most of the critique above seems to be saying “It sure would be nice to have X today” – something that had to be said 5-15 years ago if you really want it today. The question looking at major procurement programs going forward is what do you want to see 5-15 years from now? In practice, Mr. Krepinevich is suggesting that several vital capabilities be scrapped in favor of a few narrow ones.

  6. James Joyner says:

    MichaelB: But there are cheaper alternatives between continuing to fly generation-old jets and procuring fantasy planes.

  7. DC Loser says:

    James, I made a comment in one of your threads a few months ago talking about how DoD changed the rules in justifying new systems. Under the old rules, we obtained new capabilities as a result of the threat we are likely to face. That all changed around 2002. Now it’s based on a list of desired capabilities, irregardless of what the threat may be. Why did we do that? IMHO it’s because of the demise of the USSR and the greatest near-peer threat we had. We could no longer justify these expensive systems under the new rules. If we’d just return to the old system with the Mission Needs Statements and the Operational Requirement Documents which were threat based, we could do away with a lot of these programs. BTW, you are correct, it’s always cheaper to buy upgraded F-15 and 16s than F-22 or F-35.

  8. DC Loser says:

    I meant to say we could no longer justify the these expensive systems under the “old” rules.

  9. Wayne says:

    I’m going have to agree with YAJ and MichaelB. They made some good statements and we do need to look ahead instead of always looking here and now.

    Most don’t realize that the Russians new aircraft and air-to-air missiles are better than the US’s. In addition to that they are giving some of their technology to China and it is not the old outdated stuff that they give to other countries. I see a major threat from China or a resurgent Russia in 20 years.

    I also agree that the military need to be more flexible in its mission capabilities and need more research and development to deal with Low intensities conflicts. Which means we need to spend more money on defense in general.

    The biggest potential for cost savings is to streamline the support and command system in the military. The ratio between those and combat troops are out of whack especially considering today’s technology. Also I would caution to use the shell came of turning some of those jobs into civilian jobs as we have done in the past. The cost saving is misleading and great problems will arise when we go into a major war without the ability to order our civilian support personal as we would be able to do to their military counterpart.

  10. DD-10yer says:

    DDG-1000 destroyer looks like a German U boat and it’s realized they did most of there time above the water, then it looks like the British ‘carriers.’

    The stealth part makes it look real cool and something we should buy anyway.

  11. Wayne says:

    Question for the Navy types out there. I understand there are aircraft and attack sub that do anti-sub warfare but isn’t the destroyers the primary anti-sub warfare platform?

    Also I believe research and development are getting close to fine tuning some sub detection technologies that will make the sub practically obsolete.

  12. MichaelB says:

    What mix of aircraft is best to replace the fighter inventory is an interesting question, on which there’s lots of room for discussion. However, back in the 1990s, the defense establishment had a discussion about it, and ultimately Congress and the Pentagon settled on a plan that involved the F-35 replacing most of the current aircraft. Replacing several types, with a very large number of F-35s means a high total program cost. The mere fact that the program costs $250B is not an argument as to what it’s worth. It’s highly unlikely that any real plan to replace and maintain (that figure does include a lot of the total lifecycle costs) the fighter inventory will come in at much less.

    Incidentally, the F-35 is no fantasy airplane. It flew for the first time just a few days ago, and most of the development work is done. The real fantasy airplane discussed here is “a new long-range strike aircraft designed to loiter for protracted periods over the battlefield, whether searching for terrorist targets in remote areas or missile launchers deep inside Iran or China” suggested. You know what that requirement list sounds like? It sounds a lot like the original B-2 requirements. Essentially the requirement was for a bomber able to penetrate Soviet air defenses and loiter while searching for and destroying road mobile ICBMs. The B-2 cost (according to Wikipedia) between $1.1B and $2.2B per unit, presumably depending on whether development costs were included. Maybe more B-2s is how we can cut costs.

  13. Wayne says:

    Sorry for being lazy and not doing my own research but do you know if we made any headway on upgrading our air-to-air missiles? Last I heard we had a 45-degree fan while the Soviets had 90. I don’t know if this matters too much in long and medium range missiles but short range I suspect it does. Just fishing for input.

  14. MichaelB says:

    I don’t know a great deal about the details, but the AMRAAM is being upgraded, and apparently the new version is substantially more capable. Longer range, greater maneuverability, etc. The current version has been upgraded several times. The sidewinder has also been steadily upgraded. Beyond the technical issues though (the details of which I am not well versed) the newest Russian missiles have seen much less operational deployment and so their true reliability is harder to know.

    My real concern with all these discussions is the suggestion that we don’t need some capabilities. That was my point with the ASW comments earlier – 10 years ago nobody thought we needed substantial ASW. Today, we’re wondering if that was a mistake. Twice during the 20th century, Britain said ‘we don’t need the capability to fight a land war in Europe’. Both times it was catastrophically wrong to think that. If there’s one thing we should have learned from the last 100 years it’s that you want broad capabilities that give you options to address lots of threat scenarios – because you don’t know what’s coming.

  15. Wayne says:

    Thanks MB. I agree with you statements.

    The balance of RD and procurements and what areas in each, have always been a tough call. I like picking up info anywhere I can so I have a little more understanding of subjects. Buzzword and phrases without understanding have never been favorites of mine.

  16. DC Loser says:

    Wayne – the best ASW platform is another submarine. Aircraft like P-3 and S-3 are susceptible to any submarine weapons. Surface ships are highly vulnerable to a submarine’s torpedoes or ASCMs.

    MichaelB – I don’t think the Navy has ever downplayed ASW. As far as I know, they were guilty of shortchanging anti-mine capabilities by not replacing minesweepers. The navy is still very worried about the submarine threat, since many of the foreign subs are getting quieter and have much better ASCM capabilities.

  17. DC Loser says:

    I did it again. I meant to say aircart AREN’T susceptible to a submarine’s weapons.