The Other Meltdown

The financial and economic collapse, our deeply flawed healthcare system, the gridlock in Washington, two long wars not going well and long-term, fundamental problems with energy and Social Security do not complete the list of raging crises the new president must face. Add the ever expanding cost of America's shrinking, aging, less ready military forces, now approaching the meltdown stage. The nature of the problems our defenses face and the basic nature of some possible real solutions are outlined in a commentary Winslow Wheeler wrote for the Nov. 3, 2008 issue of Defense News.

"The Other Meltdown: Little To Show For Huge Defense Budgets"

by Winslow Wheeler

With the profound prob­lems the new U.S. presi­dent will face next year in the economy, health care, energy, Social Security, gridlock in Wash­ington, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanis­tan, some might be tempted to take solace that our defenses, while costly, are sound.

Sorry, Mr. President­elect-to-be; that’s not the case. You have a real mess on your hands in the Pentagon. You have addressed the other crises in your election campaign, but you have completely ignored the meltdown in the Pentagon.

Perhaps you need a short review. America’s defense budget is now larger in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any point since the end of World War II. However, our Army has fewer combat divisions than at any point in that period, our Navy has fewer combat ships and the Air Force has fewer combat aircraft.

It gets worse. According to data collected by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and many others, major categories of mili­tary hardware are, on average, aging dramatically. In some cases, our equipment is older than it has ever been. CBO also shows us that the officially approved plan in each of the military services is for this problem to get worse.

Other data from the Pentagon show that significant elements of our armed forces are less ready for combat than they should be.

Air Force and Navy combat pilots get one-half to one-third of the in­air training time they had, for example, in the early 1970s. Army units are sent into Iraq and Afghanistan without the months of training and retraining they need with all the equipment and people they will take with them into combat.

The U.S. emphasis on technolo­gy does not rescue us. As was the case in Vietnam, the immeasurable technological advantage we hold over our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan means little to winning this form of conflict.

For waging conventional war, we are burdened by technological failures at extraordinary cost. The Air Force’s newest fighter, the F­35, can be regarded as only a technical failure, and it will cost multi­ples of the aircraft it replaces, the aging, overweight F-16. The Navy’s newest—ultra-expensive—destroyer cannot protect itself effectively against aircraft and missiles, and the Army’s newest armored vehicles, which cost several million each, can be and have been destroyed by a simple anti-armor rocket that was first designed in the 1940s.

Despite decades of acquisition reform from Washington’s best minds in Congress, the Pentagon and the think tanks, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tells us that cost overruns in weapon systems are higher today than any time since they have been measured. Not a single current major weapon has been delivered on time, on cost and as promised for performance.

The Pentagon refuses to tell Congress and the public exactly how it spends the hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated to it each year. The reason is simple: it doesn’t know. In a strict financial accountability sense, it doesn’t even know if the money is spent.

Decades of reports from the Department of Defense Inspector General and GAO make this problem painfully clear.

Some argue the answer is even more money for a defense budget that already is at historic heights and that approximates what the entire rest of the world spends for military forces. We must stop throwing dollars at the Pentagon.

The evidence, while counterintuitive, is irrefutable that more money makes our problems worse. As the Army, Navy and Air Force budgets have climbed, their forces have grown smaller, older and less ready.

Others argue for acquisition reform but their proposals are riddled with loopholes, and they consistently refuse to cede control of decisions to any but those who have a track record of failure piled upon failure.

What, then, is to be done? The road to real reform starts with three simple principles:

No failed system can be fixed if it cannot be accurately measured. A crash program to make Pentagon spending accountable is essential. But that is also insufficient. DoD also must have an ability to predict much more accurately the cost, performance and schedule of its future programs and policies. The current bias, based on advocacy, is the heart and core of business as usual.

The basis for competence cannot just be intelligence and hard work; it must also be objectivity and independence. The latter are impossible without ending a fundamentally corrupt incentive system. The iron-clad control of the Pentagon decision-making process by people (in and out of uniform) who are free to then collect salaries and other emoluments from defense contractors and their support structure in Washington must end—without compromise.

The similar sham of members of Congress and—especially— their staff pretending to perform oversight and then accepting jobs from those they “oversee” (including the Pentagon) must also end.

The money party in Washington for the defense budget must end. The global economic meltdown now confronts the Pentagon budget with a mandate to economize, and to do so in a very major way. The days when big Pentagon spenders can dream up new tricks to grow the DoD budget are over.

Consider the fact that today’s defense budget is more than three times the combined size of every single nation currently or potentially hostile to us (including China and Russia).

National security “leaders” who cannot find safety at a significantly different standard will bankrupt us and must be discarded.

While simple, these principles will be extremely difficult to implement. The paragons of cost, bias and deceit will reveal themselves by their obstreperous rancor at the idea of accepting these principles and the tough-minded actions they imply.

Such uncomplicated principles offer the promise of real reform to a system desperately in need of it.

What is lacking is a president, or a candidate for that office, with the strength of character to acknowledge the depth of our problems, to embrace principles such as those stated here, and to withstand the typhoon of acrimony that will ensue from those who seek to keep us fat and fading.