Visions Of Life
2004-02-10 14:17:08 (UTC)

Trimming the Fat

Trimming the Fat
How to put the military budget on a diet.
By Fred Kaplan
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2004, at 2:52 PM PT

To grasp the magnitude of President Bush's $420.7 billion
military budget request, which he submitted to Congress on
Monday, let's compare it with the military budget for
1968, the peak year of the Vietnam War. Adjusted for
inflation, the budget that year—when a half-million
soldiers were fighting in Southeast Asia and a garrison of
armored divisions in Europe were still facing Soviet
forces along the East-West German border—totaled $428

It's remarkable enough that Bush's budget seems to be only
slightly smaller than that earlier wartime budget, but in
fact it's much larger. For Lyndon Johnson's budget
included—in fact, was dominated by—the cost of fighting in
Vietnam. Bush's budget includes none of the cost of
fighting in Iraq. That will be covered in a supplemental,
which Bush will request from Congress after the November

Officials guess the supplemental will be around $50
billion (the one for this year was $65 billion), but even
if it turns out to be just half that sum, the Fiscal Year
2005 military budget will be (again, adjusted for
inflation) the largest U.S. military budget since 1952—the
peak of the Korean War—and the second-largest since World
War II.

It is hard to say which is more remarkable—this
calculation or the fact that nobody seems to mind.

Yes, we live in a dangerous world. Yes, we must support
our troops with decent pay and the finest hardware. Yes,
an uncertain future requires us to maintain an adequate
technical and industrial base. But does even a
conservative extrapolation of these mandates require
spending nearly half a trillion dollars?

An enormous portion of this military budget, quite
plainly, has nothing to do with Iraq, al-Qaida, the
spectrum of new threats, or the American military's new
doctrine of "transformation" and lighter, more mobile
forces. Here are some examples:

Stealth aircraft. The Air Force wants $4.1 billion to buy
24 F-22 Raptor "stealth" planes, while the Air Force and
the Navy together are requesting another $4.6 billion for
research and development of a still newer stealth Joint
Strike Fighter. Stealth planes are designed with exotic
materials and rounded edges that reduce their visibility
to enemy radar—and thus make them less vulnerable to anti-
air missiles. This attribute, obviously, comes in handy.
On the first night of the last two Gulf wars, F-117
stealth planes penetrated Iraqi air space and launched
surprise strikes on key targets—including air-defense
batteries—thus paving the way for follow-on echelons of
non-stealth attack aircraft.

But the key question Congress should ask is: How much
stealth do we need? The Air Force and Navy currently have
about 75 stealth planes. Do they really need more? Almost
no non-stealthy American airplanes (except for
helicopters) have been shot down in recent wars, nor are
they likely to be shot down in wars of the foreseeable
future. Extremely cheap and reliable "smart bombs" (such
as the satellite-guided JDAMs, which the Air Force and the
Navy are buying in reassuringly ample quantities) can now
be dropped with great precision from planes flying at
10,000 feet—an altitude well beyond the range of anti-
aircraft fire.* Who needs to spend all this money for
stealth when gravity provides enough protection?

More puzzling still, these new stealth planes are designed
primarily for long-range air-to-air combat. Except perhaps
for Israel and France, there is not a country in the world
that has an air force remotely competitive with U.S. air
forces—in personnel, training, or inventory. Of course,
this may not stay true for decades to come, but it's
wasteful to spend billions now for threats that, at worst,
lie way, way beyond the horizon.

Ships and submarines. For the third year in a row, the
Navy wants $2.5 billion to build a new Virginia-class
nuclear-powered attack submarine. It also wants $3.6
billion for three new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and
$1.5 billion for a new DD(X) surface combatant ship. These
may be nice to have, but—unlike the Army, whose troops
truly are stretched thin—the Navy has no gaps in its
coverage of strategic sea lanes, especially since there's
no other country in the world that has a navy worth the
name. The U.S. Navy currently has 55 perfectly capable
nuclear-powered attack subs. The only mystery is what
their crews do when they go out on patrol. They don't
track Soviet subs like they did in the old days, and they
don't play cat-and-mouse games with enemy anti-submarine-
warfare assets for the simple reason that there are no
naval enemies and, if there were, they don't have ASW
assets. Similar questions can be directed to much of the
U.S. surface fleet.

The United States has spent a lot of money over the years
on submarine technology, and it should continue spending
some money to maintain that technical base. But that
doesn't require spending billions to build more and more

Comanche helicopters. The Army wants $1.2 billion to
continue developing its long-troubled Comanche scout-and-
reconnaissance chopper. Helicopters were the one class of
weapons that did poorly in the last Iraq war. Since the
Comanche began its R & D process well over a decade ago,
the Army and other services have fielded several high-tech
drones equipped with video cameras that transmit real-time
imagery to commanders. They do the same job more
effectively, cheaply, and safely. The FY05 budget includes
$600 million to buy 17 new Global Hawk, Predator, and
Shadow drones—in addition to the 65 purchased the previous
two years—and $2 billion on R & D for future models.

Missile defense. President Bush is asking $10.7 billion—a
10 percent hike over this year's $9.6 billion—for his much-
cherished program to shoot down a rogue state's nuclear
missiles as they dart toward our shores. Missile defense
is now the military's single largest money sponge. The
Pentagon's director of testing says the program has not
yet come close to proving its effectiveness. Officials at
the Missile Defense Agency acknowledge that the
architecture for a multilayered defense system has yet to
be worked out. Several scientific panels (including
several apolitical ones) have concluded that the program's
whole mission lies beyond the realm of real science.
(Click here for a bunch of columns that elaborate on these
points.) Bush is set to deploy the first 20 antimissile
missiles by next year. It's premature, to say the least.
Cutting the program back to a $3 billion R & D venture—
roughly what Presidents Reagan and Clinton were spending—
would not be unreasonable.

These are just a few ideas. A hard scrub of the budget
would uncover many more. For all the (quite legitimate)
talk about new types of threats and the need for new types
of forces to counter them, the FY05 military budget—in its
broad contours and blue-chip weapons systems—looks a lot
like a Cold War budget, except that Cold War budgets were

Correction, Feb. 4, 2004: This piece originally said
10,000 feet was beyond the range of any surface-to-air
missiles. In recent wars, the first waves of U.S. aircraft
and cruise missiles have destroyed the radar and launch
sites of the enemy's high-altitude surface-to-air
missiles. After that point, flying 10,000 feet puts U.S.
planes beyond the range of mobile SAMs and anti-air
artillery, which have much shorter range. In any case, in
the 1999 Kosovo war and the 2003 Iraq war, only one U.S.
combat plane was shot down. Ironically, it was an F-117
stealth fighter. (Return to the corrected sentence.)