A Mutually Assured Debacle

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

Rather than addressing the fundamental problems in our military forces, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Congress, and President Obama are focused on mutually exclusive short term, tactical goals. With each going their separate way, none is likely to succeed, except in making our massive defense problems even worse. A historic opportunity to tame a voracious source of our horrific federal debt is being squandered by short sighted games, some of them abysmally selfish.

Massive problems in our defenses? Huh? One more time: At a post World War II high in inflation adjusted dollars, we have the smallest Navy and Air Force we have had since 1946, and the Army is just barely above its post World War II low. Our major equipment inventories are, on average, older than at any point in the last sixty years. The current Pentagon plan is to make both problems worse, at higher cost.

Just since 2000, the shrinkage and aging has continued despite $1 Trillion dollars added to the "base" Pentagon budget – and we have spent yet another trillion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. None it paid for; it’s all new debt.

President Obama has convened a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to address the unaffordability of this and other federal spending; his going-in position is to exempt the Pentagon from restraint.

Secretary Gates might seem an exception to this gloomy review, but he is not. Last year and again this spring, he got things off to an interesting start by telling us about his heartburn with a litany of classic Pentagon problems. This year’s list includes –

Excessive military officer bloat and civilian overhead that gobbles 40 percent of Pentagon spending, robbing the fighting forces of resources they clearly lack;

Trying to keep up with a defense department healthcare plan conceived in the days when money was thought to be free; its annual costs have zoomed from $19 billion per year to $50 billion;

Throwing money at contractors for such things as writing government reports on their own goods and services for an additional $23 billion, and

Overspending on ill-conceived, unnecessary or unaffordable hardware, including whole categories such as aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines; to say nothing of his year’s two examples trotted out for public ridicule: the C-17 aircraft and a second, back-up engine for the very problematic F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Unfortunately, much like last year, Gates has started capitulating as soon as he finished complaining. Last year, he folded early and often on the C-17 transport when he permitted his spokesman to wave more C-17s through when House Appropriators slathered them into a supplemental spending bill, and then again into the regular Pentagon spending bill. This year, having opined against over-ambitious aircraft carrier force levels on May 3 to the Navy League and on above-inflation military pay raises on May 8 in Kansas, Gates told the press on May 20 he was not so "crazy" as to oppose the House Armed Services Committee when it blithely ignored his recommendations.

Much like he did last year with the hyper-expensive, under-performing F-22 fighter, Gates is retreating to make his stand on the more limited domain of isolated hardware systems: the second F-35 engine and the C-17 transport. His selection of the GE/Rolls Royce alternative engine for the F-35 as a core issue is stunningly weak. Despite the arguments on Capitol Hill that try to paint the matter as black and white, for or against the pork of the second "unnecessary" engine, Gates’ substantive case is not nearly so clear. Before the anti-second engine conclusion became a political imperative inside the Pentagon, some analyses there favored a competitive second source, and in 2009 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) came to the same conclusion.

With Gates focused on the House of Representatives where the second engine fight is coming to a head, the C-17 porkers in the Senate are laying in wait to ambush him. There, as evidenced by a lopsided 34 to 64 tally on a McCain amendment last fall to stop more C-17 procurement, the Boeing porkers have the votes, even though their case for that faulty airplane is pathetically weak. (We have already bought more than even the Air Force wants of this not-so long range, not our heaviest lifter, not able to land anywhere, $250 million [each] aircraft.)

Gates has been fighting his uphill hardware battle alone. That was not the case last year when he had the fulsome backing of the White House on the F-22. Gates and Obama jointly articulated an unmistakably hard veto threat: If Congress adds a single F-22 to any defense bill, it will be vetoed. Period. This year, Gates is left hanging out to dry by a White House that seems dazed by the prospect of being called anti-defense for contemplating a veto of a defense bill in an election year. Gates has been permitted to say only that he will recommend a veto to the president, and – pathetically – he told the press on May 20 that the president "probably would have waved me off" if he weren’t going to support him. After 30 years of hearing both hard and malleable veto threats as a staffer on Capitol Hill, I can tell you that this one is squishy soft.

But Gates has not just the White House to blame; he has himself.

The only way to win a fight in Washington is to be in it. Not only has Gates demurred to contest some of the fights he picked, he may be departing the battlefield altogether. Asked, again on May 20, if he were "staying here through the end" to fight out these issues, he responded vaguely "We’ll see," thereby boosting the rumors, now rife, that he is leaving – likely after the November elections. Ignoring Gates, both in Congress and in the Pentagon, is about to become a no-cost exercise.

With the only seeming adult in Washington on defense issues (Gates) leaving and the White House playing Hamlet on veto threats, the children in Congress will continue to foul the budget with any and everything they can imagine will make them look good to voters in November. That is a pricey exercise, and it means taking good ideas, such as a competitive source selection for jet fighter engines, and making it into a piñata for contractors. If the second F-35 engine is funded, as sure as the sun rises Congress will dole out F-35 contracts to both GE and Pratt & Whitney, rather than mandate multiple knock-down drag-out competitive fights, year after year – the only way to achieve lower costs and better engines.

And so, the defense mess will self-perpetuate: still more money will buy us an even smaller, older, less capable force. For not keeping his blood lust up for the fight, even departing the trenches, Gates will probably lose the limited contests he has chosen to fight. Obama, clueless and meandering on defense budget issues to the point of making himself irrelevant, will lose the only secretary of defense who even talks about making a difference. Congress, happy as a clam with unlimited money to squander however it pleases, will prove – yet again – the final arbitrator of the terms and conditions of our defense demise.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.

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