After six years of slashing funds for military modernization, the Obama Administration has suddenly discovered that countries like China are closing the gap with America in warfighting technology. If Mr. Obama was the first president to skimp on military technology, the situation might be manageable. But he isn’t. Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 all undercut military modernization, which is why the joint force today relies heavily on weapons bought during the Reagan years. The warfighters who will suffer most for a generation of under-investment in new weapons are America’s soldiers, because when war comes they always do most of the real fighting and take most of the casualties.
If you’re one of those armchair strategists who thinks the military spends too much on unneeded weapons, you ought to take a look at what kind of money the Army is actually getting. Just type “Army 2015 budget” into your search engine and look at the first set of charts that comes up. The Army’s base budget for fiscal 2015, which includes pretty much all of its technology funding, will be about $121 billion — marking the fifth straight year it has declined. That sounds like big money, but only 17% — $20 billion — is set aside for developing and producing weapons. The rest goes to items like military pay and readiness.
How much is $20 billion? It’s about one-tenth of one-percent of the national economy. According to the RAND Corporation, it’s only a fifth of what Americans spend each year on illegal drugs. It’s 15 days’ worth of sales at WalMart. That’s how much money our dysfunctional political system provides to equip America’s soldiers. And when you start splitting the money up among various types of weapons — helicopters, missiles, vehicles — the amounts become miniscule. For instance, the Army’s entire budget for purchasing wheeled and tracked vehicles in the fiscal year begun October 1 will be around $1.5 billion. That’s four hours’ worth of federal spending at current rates.
With defense spending capped by the Budget Control Act through 2021, Army leaders have been forced to choose between force structure, readiness and modernization. Because new threats are popping up everywhere from Russia to West Africa to Syria to Afghanistan to North Korea, they have little choice but to focus on maintaining an adequately sized force in a reasonable state of readiness. They’re still losing an average of 20,000 active-duty soldiers each year, but when it comes to modernization, the Army has pretty much given up. It has canceled its next-generation air defense system, its next-generation combat vehicle, and its next-generation scout helicopter. In fact, it isn’t really developing anything new except for a next-gen jeep.
Word inside the Army is that it won’t be able to make significant strides in replacing Cold War weapons until the sequestration process imposed by the Budget Control Act goes away. If that means waiting until the law finally expires early in the next decade, then the Army is destined to lose its edge in warfighting technology completely against high-end adversaries, and thousands of soldiers may pay for that loss with their lives.
President Obama has been against sequestration since Day One, but it wasn’t Republicans who came up with the bright idea of taking half of sequestration savings out of the 19% of the federal budget represented by defense. So if President Obama doesn’t want future military defeats to be part of his legacy, he ought to tell his Pentagon team to do something more than talk up innovation.