Pentagon should put money where its mouth is

February 10, 2006|By BENJAMIN H. FRIEDMAN AND CAITLIN TALMADGE

The Pentagon's guide to military spending for the next four years will disappoint anyone who believes the U.S. military must adapt to a world where threats come from insurgents and terrorists rather than nation-states.

Though it identifies these dangers, the Quadrennial Defense Review, which the Pentagon released this week and issues every four years, does not put its money where its mouth is. It suggests that the Pentagon keep buying Cold War-style weapons, which are largely useless against our current enemies. It retains the budgetary status quo among services, even though the Army and Marines are doing the bulk of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Strategy requires choice. By prioritizing dangers, planners can select the appropriate weapons and forces to confront them. But the QDR evades choice. It says that the United States faces a hostile mix of terrorists, failed states, insurgencies, rogue states and large militaries such as China's.

It implies that the most pressing threats are terrorists and insurgents but never comes out and says that we should focus our resources on them. The review simply contends that we must prepare for everything and recommends keeping what we have, with a few tweaks.

Some of these tweaks are helpful. The review rightly notes the importance of intelligence and of military personnel who speak foreign languages and understand foreign cultures. It recommends increasing special operations forces that can train indigenous security forces, gather human intelligence and conduct raids to capture terrorists or unconventional weapons.

The QDR boosts the psychological operations and civil affairs units, which are key to winning the war of ideas and rebuilding other nations. It also backs increased production of unmanned aerial vehicles, which gather intelligence and hunt terrorists.

But these are changes on the margins. The QDR preserves expensive platforms intended mainly for conventional warfare.

The Navy still gets to build seven DD(X) destroyers, at $2.5 billion apiece, even though the war on terror is not fought on the high seas. The Army keeps its Future Combat System, a $145 billion network of unproven technologies largely irrelevant to defeating insurgents.

Worse, the review recommends building 183 of the Air Force's F-22A fighters at $165 million each. Designed to counter Soviet fighters in the 1980s, the F-22A is virtually useless in a world where countries prefer surface-to-air missiles over expensive air forces of their own. Moreover, the United States already has a large arsenal of F-15 and F-16 fighters and is building more than 2,000 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

The QDR does nothing to shift funding to the services most relevant to today's threats.

In a $440 billion budget (excluding war costs), the Army gets about 25 percent, the Air Force 33 percent, and the Navy and Marines another 33 percent. The rest goes to departmentwide operations.

If the QDR took its own analysis of threats seriously, it would reduce the Navy and Air Force's budgets to fund the Army and Marines. Ground forces fight insurgencies and stabilize broken states like Bosnia and Haiti. If the United States ever occupied Iran, North Korea or Pakistan, these would be the forces needed to keep order.

The QDR does bless the Army's decision to increase the number of its combat brigades from 33 to 42, but this is sleight of hand. The new brigades take soldiers from the old ones, meaning the same forces are simply spread into more units. The QDR preserves a military built to fight China or Russia, not the wars we are fighting.

Why the disjuncture? Politics.

News reports indicate that if Pentagon civilians had their druthers, the QDR would have been more ambitious. It appears that the services joined forces and, with congressional help, preserved their budget slices and favorite weapons. The QDR is less a failure of intent than a failure of power.

Controlling military spending requires enhancing civilian power and forcing services to compete. That competition will occur only by limiting the power of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which unites the service bureaucracies. The QDR shows that this is a reform Congress should consider.

The best thing about the QDR is that it is not final. It is an organizational signpost, not a law. Future planners can buck its recommendations. Here's hoping they do.

Benjamin H. Friedman and Caitlin Talmadge are doctoral students in the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their e-mails are bhf@mit.edu and talmadge@mit.edu.

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