Mangled Rationales for a Fatter Defense Budget

The Pentagon’s budget is now bigger than at any point since World War II as measured in constant 2008 dollars.

Nonetheless, some want more stuffing. They want the money not for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but for the so-called baseline, non-war budget.

Some adopt arguments that destroy their own case. Examining them explains how the Pentagon fails to give us a war-winning, combat–ready military. James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, argued Feb. 21 in the Washington Times, “In Defense of Defense Spending,” that “Comparing the cost of today’s military to what America spent to equip and deploy GIs against the Nazis is like comparing today’s home entertainment center – plasma-screen, surround-sound HDTV with PlayStation 3 and Wii – to Harry Truman’s Philco Radio. Sure, today’s system costs a lot more. But look what you’re getting.” A typical example is the F-22 fighter. It may cost more, but it is also a superb fighter, the argument goes.

According to Wikipedia, Harry Truman’s Philco radio console “ran into the $500-$800 range.” Today, at Circuit City, a top-of-the-line HDTV runs about $3,800; a good surround-sound, about $1,800. The PlayStation 3 and Wii are $400 and $250 respectively.

Add a DVD player and a year of broadband TV service for $200 and $600, respectively.

That makes $7,050 for the “lot more” cost of the superb, modern home theater compared with Harry Truman’s dowdy Philco console.

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to compensate for the change in the value of the dollar from 1945 to today, the 1945 price should be multiplied by 11.9. That “$500-$800 range” for Harry Truman’s Philco calculates to $6,000-$9,500 today.

In other words, if we adjust for inflation, weapons today should cost – very roughly – what they cost in 1945, at most 30 percent more. Of course, the advance in technology should bring a vast im-provement in performance.

Now, let’s run the price comparison for fighter aircraft. The newest thing in 1945 was the Lockheed P-80 jet, the most expensive fighter Harry Truman could buy. In 1945, the P-80 cost $110,000. Using the OMB index to convert the dollars, we get $1,309,000.

Today’s F-22 is a little pricier.

The 184 F-22s the Air Force is now buying will cost $65.3 billion in contemporary dollars. That’s $355 million per copy. That’s not exactly in the price neighborhood of the inflation-adjusted P-80. In fact, it’s in a whole different universe. It’s a multiple of 273.

We should not pretend that free market inflation and technology improvement is an excuse for today’s huge defense budgets. While commercial prices have barely grown in inflation-adjusted terms and brought gigantic performance improvements, military prices have grown astronomically.

A defense process so grossly inefficient that it can run up weapon costs 273 times faster than inflation reeks not of the commercial market but of socialism and bu-reaucracies that breed incestuous-ly ad infinitum.

And what about performance improvements? Does the cost of the F-22, even if astronomical, really help the Air Force win? A 273-fold improvement in capability is unreasonable to expect, but is it worth buying?

On the purely technical level, the F-22 can fly more than three times the speed of the P-80 and al-most twice as high. It has other special characteristics (a reduced signature against some radars at some angles and long-range sensors and missiles, and more) that the P-80’s creators were incapable of designing.

However, there are consequences to the gigantic price.

The F-22 force is too small. Even if the Air Force gets the additional 200 it wants, the United States will have the smallest tactical fighter inventory since World War II.

The F-22 makes our fighter force too old. When the last F-22 is bought, our shriveled fighter inventory will be – on average – older than at any previous point in history.

F-22 costs are strangling pilot training. Combat data repeatedly demonstrate that pilot skill is much more important than technical differences in fighters to determine who lives and who dies in an aerial fight. To help pay for the F-22’s gigantic cost, the Air Force has shrunk its own training budget. F-22 pilots now get a to-tally inadequate 10 to 12 hours of air combat training per month.

Twice that amount would be barely sufficient.

But even worse, the technology in the F-22 may be more analo-gous to 8-track audiotapes. It depends on the efficacy of a techno-logical road that has not proved itself in real war.

The beyond-visual-range, radar-based air war the F-22 is built to fight has not been proved effective in actual combat involving more than a very few aircraft. Moreover, some serious experts, including the designers of the highly successful F-15, F-16 and A-10, argue that the F-22 is a huge performance disappointment.

The thinking behind the F-22 gives us massive problems and a bloated budget. Spending more will only make things worse. We need to demand a less bloated budget, and more importantly, radically new thinking about how it all goes together.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. For over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues.




Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.