By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
If you thought the Democratic Party was still mired in the anti-war, anti-military funk that followed America's defeat in Vietnam, then you haven't been paying attention to this week's mark-up of the fiscal 2008 defense budget by the House Armed Services Committee.
The first Democratic majority to run the committee in 13 years is making it clear that chairman Ike Skelton isn't the only member on their side of the aisle willing to spend big on weapons and other discretionary defense outlays. That's a distinct difference from what the committee was doing the last time Democrats were in control, when both parties seemed to be competing to see how far down they could drive weapons outlays.
Now, most of the funding pressure is on the upside, and Democrats seem more than happy to go along.
Department of the Army.
Democrats are supporting outlays for just about any weapon that can be tied to the war in Iraq, including backing multi-year production of the Chinook helicopter, the Abrams tank and the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. Those are all cold-war systems that have proven useful in places like Fallujah, so the committee is backing digital upgrades and other improvements that will keep them active in the force for decades to come.
It is also giving generous funding to the newer, more agile Stryker armored vehicle that has been a big success in Iraq, and to the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) program that will quickly equip the Army and other services with thousands of armored trucks designed to deflect the energy of roadside bombs.
The only Army program likely to take a sizable hit when all the wrangling is over is the next-generation Future Combat System, but even that program will probably be funded at $3 billion in 2008 since it is the centerpiece of the service’s long-term modernization plan.
Department of the Air Force.
The committee appears to have gotten the message that much of what the Air Force does supports the ground forces, because there are few cuts to air power programs other than to claim unexpended funds resulting from delays. Both of the service's next-gen fighter programs (F-22 and F-35) look likely to stay on track, as will the two airlift planes currently in production.
The committee wants to add money for ten more C-17 jet transports, and seems favorably inclined to supporting another multiyear production arrangement for the versatile C-130J turboprop. It is acceding to Air Force requests to remove barriers to the retirement of aging cargo planes, a sure sign that production lines for new cargo planes will keep humming into the future. The only airlifter the committee seems to have doubts about is the short-haul Joint Cargo Aircraft, which probably isn't needed.
Funding for military space programs looks likely to be robust, including for the Transformational Communication Satellite -- a revolutionary system that Congress in previous years cut but which now could be fully funded.
Department of the Navy.
The Navy budget includes funding of the Marine Corps, which looks likely to get full support from the committee for its signature V-22 tilt-rotor and vertical ascent/descent version of the F-35 fighter.
The Marines are also the lead service for the MRAP armored-truck program, which the committee looks inclined to give over $4 billion in 2008. Because that program responds directly to threats in Iraq, few members are likely to question it even though it has been put on a very fast track. The Marines will get 3,700 of the 7,800 vehicles in the current MRAP plan, but the program has been growing rapidly and could double again in size. The committee also wants to add an LPD-17 amphibious vessel to the Navy's shipbuilding request, which would be used mainly by the Marine Corps.
The committee has not been quite so supportive of Bush Administration plans for missile defense, a longstanding bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans. But judging from action taken so far on most weapons programs, bi-partisan support for big military investments has returned to Capitol Hill.