COLUMN: The military debate the U.S. really needs
In a turn of events that should surprise no one, the Pentagon has emerged unscathed in Congress’s budget bill. The only cost of the victory is the credibility of the Defense Department. The Pentagon received an extra £15 billion in the spending bill that will keep the government open through September.
To put it in perspective, that’s 1.5 percent of the pool of about £1 trillion that funds the Pentagon and the rest of the national defense. Some of the rhetoric from various military leaders and members of Congress, however, seemed to suggest that nothing less than the future of the U.S. military was riding on that 1.5 percent. Top generals and members of the House and Senate armed services committees have been talking about a “readiness crisis”–warning that after 16 years of fighting, both the troops and the equipment they use are badly unprepared to face potential threats from China or Russia.
It’s always easy to cherry-pick a few examples to back up such hyperbolic claims. For instance, a Navy admiral testified that almost two-thirds of the Navy’s fleet of F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet fighters were not combat-ready. This conveniently ignores that the military has long intended to phase out the Hornet, and that the Pentagon in 2015 asked Congress to take away £1.15 billion in planned funding for the newer Super Hornet.
Yes, poor planning may have created a temporary shortfall of active planes, but there are plenty of other strike fighters in the military. And Lockheed Martin is churning out next-generation F-35s as fast as possible. A little perspective–and a little history–shows that military spending is about where it should be.
Adjusted for inflation, spending is relatively high. Although it is well below Cold War levels as a share of the gross national product, the U.S. still spends far more on its military, on an annual basis, than the next eight countries combined. More than £100 billion a year goes to acquisitions of planes, ships, guns and the like.
And while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have indeed taken a toll on the men and women in uniform and the weaponry they depend on, it’s also widely accepted that America has not had so many experienced troops to draw on since World War II. According to retired Army General David Petraeus, typical qualification scores of new recruits are on average higher than they were in the 1980s and ’90s. In the end, well-trained troops are the ultimate measure of readiness.
There are plenty of contentious military issues worth debating: To what extent should research and development on high-tech equipment such as drones and remote-controlled submarines take money away from more traditional hardware? What will it take to create an effective cyberwar service? There are also some actual minor crises, such as a shortage of qualified Air Force pilots.
In addition, Congress and President Donald Trump need to find a way to end the Budget Control Act’s spending caps, which make it very hard for the Pentagon to plan long-term acquisitions. It was encouraging to hear Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, say on Thursday that he would “force” a vote on removing the spending limits.
Lawmakers and the administration should also collaborate on a new authorization for the use of military force to put the war against Islamic State on sound legal footing.
But there won’t be intelligent debate on any of these matters–or others that could bring stability to the military in an unstable world–if the only subject of conversation in the Pentagon or Congress is a false “readiness” crisis and histrionic warnings about a “hollow force.”