The New York Times Flames Out in Defense Dogfight

The 21 Dec 2008 editorial in the New York Times, “How To Pay For A 21st-Century Military” purports to advocate tough-minded pragmatism to reform a Pentagon that is clearly out of control.  Yet its logic is really another example of the kind of hackneyed thinking that serves to protect the status quo.  It also suggests indirectly why the mainstream media are in such trouble.

The editors of the Times present a cut list that includes terminating the F-22, the DDG-1000, the Virginia class attack submarine, the V-22 Osprey, halting premature deployment (not R&D) on ballistic missile defense, cutting nuclear weapons, de-alerting nuclear weapons, cutting two air wings from the active Air Force, and cutting one carrier from the Navy.  Some of these recommendations make a lot of sense, but even if one assumes unrealistically that there is no cost growth elsewhere and there are no contract termination costs or base closing costs, the cutbacks would “save” $20 to $25 billion.  While $25 billion may sound impressive, bear in mind, the upcoming Defense Department’s core budget could be as high as $580 billion in Fiscal Year 2010, according to news reports.

Put another way, even if we believe in the vanishingly small probability of a best case scenario with no cost growth or contract termination costs, these cuts would reduce the defense budget Mr. Obama is about to inherit by only a little over four per cent  — and that would be a reduction from a budget level that the editors say is bloated, because the defense budget was increased recklessly by 40 per cent  in inflation-adjusted terms since 2001 (not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Furthermore, the editors at the Times do not even want to pass on this piddling amount to the taxpayers or Mr. Obama’s infrastructure program, because they say that the “savings” should be plowed back into the Pentagon to increase the size of the Army and Marine ground forces, to buy the Navy’s littoral combat ship, and to resupply the National Guard and Reserve forces.  But then they conclude by observing that the era of unlimited budgets is over and that Secretary Gates must make procurement reform a priority.

This is very peculiar logic.  And it is made even more bizarre by what the editors of the Times did not say.  Consider please just a few things they forgot to mention:

Omission #1: The Times’s recommendation to terminate production of the F-22 is a good idea that is long overdue, in my opinion.  But included in this recommendation is the idea that we should preserve the F-35 program with a bridge of upgrades to the F-16s.  That could be a very long bridge … because the editors of the Times ignored problems in the F-35 program that threaten to make it an even bigger turkey than the F-22.

The F-35 will cost of over $300 billion, making it the most expensive program in the history of the Department of Defense and the world.  Moreover, the F-35 is rapidly becoming the heaviest jewel in the Pentagon’s  crown of mismanagement.  The F-35 has serious technical problems; it is way behind schedule; and is way over cost — facts apparently lost on editors at the Times. Last March, for example, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported another cost increase of $38 billion, bringing the total estimated cost to $338 billion or 45 per cent more than when the program was approved for its risky concurrent engineering and manufacturing development (i.e., buy before you fly) program in 2001.  On  November 26,  2008, Bloomberg News reported that an internal team of DoD analysts concluded the F-35 program could cost 40 per cent more than budgeted in the 2010-2015 plan that Mr Bush is about to bequeath to Mr. Obama (and these teams have a track record of underestimating future cost growth).

One of the biggest cost drivers and sources of technical risk in the F-35 is its stealth requirement, but this requirement is a shopworn legacy of the cold war.  Set aside the valid criticisms of how well stealth technologies work in the real world or the equally valid criticisms relating to the technical limitations of real-world air defense systems, and just consider where the logic shaping the stealth requirement came from.

The “requirement” for stealth, which is now taken for granted in just about everything, reached a fever pitch during the cycle of threat hysteria that emerged in the mid 1970s and lasted until the Soviet Union collapsed. The Air Force claimed the Soviet Union was ringed by an impenetrable air defense system, made up of dense, overlapping, multi-layered air defense radars.  Technologists claimed (falsely as it turned out) that this system was so redundant that it would be impossible to disable it by electronic jamming or to penetrate it at low level, and that the only recourse, therefore, was to reduce the radar reflectivity of our own airplanes.  The reduction in reflectivity would in theory shorten the detection range of the Soviet radars.  In effect, the idea was to create “holes” in the Soviet’s radar coverage that our planes could then fly through undetected.  At the time, no one ever claimed that any other country had such a multilayered air defense system, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is clear that no country has yet developed or deployed anything remotely close to the massive overlapping capabilities portrayed by the Air Force’s threat inflators during the waning years of the Cold War.

In fact, one reason why the F-22 is so expensive was that it had to be stealthy.  Now the editors of the Times say correctly that the F-22 should be terminated because it was tailored to the Soviet threat, which has ceased to exist.  But in the next breath, they make the peculiar assertion that  we should preserve a far more costly and more troubled turkey, the F-35, even though it has a distinction that even the F-22 can not claim: namely it is tailored to meet the same threat that has ceased to exist at least three years before the F-35 R&D program began in 1994.

Omission #2: The Times wants to kill the DDG 1000 and the Virginia class submarine, rely on the DDG 51 Aegis destroyers for fleet defense, and plow the “savings” into the littoral combat ship.

Even the Navy wants to dump the problem-plagued DDG 1000.  Last July, in a congressional hearing, Navy leaders testified that they intended to truncate the DDG-51 program at 2 ships, nixing earlier plans to buy up to 32 ships.  While the editors of the Times recognize this cutback, they say that “Cutting the last two could save more than $3 billion a year.” But for how long?  In fact, termination creates only a short term saving (again, assuming unrealistically that there are no contract termination costs), because each DDG-1000 is estimated to cost $3 billion, so the best case estimate is a one shot saving of $6 billion, probably spaced over several years.

And what about the Littoral Combat Ship?  A case can be made for a low cost combat ship designed to fight in the shallow littorals, if only for attacking pirates.  But plowing the money back into the $600 million Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is asking for trouble.  Like in the case of the F-35, the editors of the Times forgot to do mention the widely-reported facts this program had turned out to be a grotesque technological, organizational, and economic monster, albeit on a smaller scale than the F-35.  It is hard to see how anyone with a modicum of curiosity could miss these problems; all the research you need to do is to google “littoral combat ship” and “cost growth” and your screen will sink under the weight of reports describing of this particular horror story.

If there was ever case for reforming the Pentagon’s acquisition process, it is the LCS.  This ship, conceived initially as a small, fast, maneuverable and relatively low-cost ship, came unglued in 2007-2008, when it became clear that technical and organizational problems would take years to solve, if they could be solved at all.  It is now clear the LCS will cost more than twice as much as its original cost estimate of $220 million per ship, if it ever gets built in significant numbers, which I doubt.

Omission #3: The editors of the Times want to halt premature deployment of a missile defense system to save $9 billion, but continue spending for research, even though they acknowledge that after spending $150 billion over the last 25 years the Pentagon has yet to produce anything close to being a workable solution.  Of course, they ignored the billions poured into the earlier efforts going back to 1946 when the USAAF began its ABM efforts with Project Thumper.  These efforts (the most prominent efforts being Projects Thumper and Wizard, Nike Zeus, Project Defender, Nike X, Spartan, Sprint, Sentinel, and Safeguard) and others continued with varying degrees of intensity, including one other premature deployment fiasco (Safeguard in 1975) until early 1983, when President Reagan unleashed yet another torrent of spending .

The logic of continuing to pour money down a 50 year old missile defense rathole that has no workable weapon to show for it is a little like the logic which induced Sir Douglas Haig to conclude he should try to redeem failure for four months after taking 60,000 casualties in the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916 — he just didn’t get the message, and neither, apparently, have the editors of the Times.

Moreover, many theorists of nuclear war argue that a ballistic missile defense targeted against ICBMs is destabilizing because it threatens the deterrent effects of other nations’ nuclear weapons.  The Times makes a puzzling recommendation in this regard:  The editors say we should reopen negotiations with the Russians to bring about reductions in warheads and that we take missiles off hair-trigger alert.  While both these actions would reduce the horror of nuclear war, and would be perceived as mutually stabilizing, they would also be a variance with a vigorous missile defense program, which would make the Russian deterrent less effective.  Actively pursuing missile defense would have a more predictable effect of causing the Russians to hedge against our “shield” by fielding more missiles and returning them to hair trigger alert to neutralize the effects of our first strike “sword,” which they would see as being made safer by our shield.  That a missile defense system is unlikely to work simply makes such an evolution and exercise in madness.

Omission #4: The editors of the Times concluded by saying that reforming the procurement system should be a priority and that Gates has to make some tough calls.  True to form, they said nothing about the nature of the reforms.  Moreover, their recommendations discussed above make clear that they do not even understand what they want to reform.  To understand what is needed, one needs to understand what is really driving budgets up record levels while force structure melts down and why forces readiness is hollowing out under the pressure of two very small wars,  when compared to the less costly Korean or Vietnam wars (in terms of the total size of the force level operational tempos).  In fact, as has been documented for at least twenty years, patterns of repetitive habitual behavior in the Pentagon have created a self-destructive decision making process.  This process has produced a death spiral having three undeniable outward manifestations:

The first manifestation is the long term trend of shrinking forces made up of aging equipment.  This is caused by the central fact that unit procurement costs increase much faster than budgets, even when budgets blow through the roof, like they did in the last 8 years.  That means new weapons do not replace old weapons on a one for one basis.  Over the long term, the changes have been mind boggling: In 1957 for example, the Air Force had an inventory of over 9,000 fighter airplanes with an average age of around 5 years; today, even though the Pentagon is spending more money than at any time since the end of World War II, that inventory is less than 2,000, with an average age of 23 years.  The editors of the New York Times call for reform but would have us continue this evolutionary process by protecting the high-cost F-35, while calling for a reduction of two Air Force tactical fighter force by two wings and one Navy’s tactical fighter wing.

The second manifestation of the defense death spiral takes the form of continual pressure to reduce combat readiness. This is due to the high wages of the not-so-all-volunteer force (stop loss is a backdoor draft)  and the increased costs of operating more complex weapons that, for the reason stated above, are getting older and more worn out more on average, and hence more expensive to operate. Today, there is general agreement that our military is being hollowed out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But the scales of today’s warfighting efforts are miniscule when compared to equivalent efforts at the peak of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon had a smaller budget in inflation adjusted dollars.  For example,  today we are fighting two wars with about 180,000 deployed troops, whereas in 1967 and 1968, forces peaked at over 550,000 deployed troops in Vietnam.  In terms of airpower, the Air Force was flying tens of thousands more sorties and  was dropping more bombs on North Vietnam that it dropped on Germany in World War II.  Bear in mind some other differences from today: in the mid-1960s, the United States was also engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet superpower, and we maintained over a million forward-deployed troops in Europe and other parts of east Asia; we also maintained world-wide sea control with a Navy of more than a 1000 ships, and we keep hundreds of strategic bombers and thousands of missiles on hair trigger alert.  Yet we had a smaller defense budget then that we have today.

The third outward manifestation of the Pentagon’s death spiral is the corrupt accounting system.  As I described in my final testimony to Congress in June 2002, the Pentagon’s bookkeeping system is so broken that it can not pass the simple audits required by the spirit of the Constitution and the letter of the law (i.e., the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990). This makes it impossible to produce the information needed to sort out the priorities needed to fix the first two problems.  Until this problem is addressed no amount vapid editorializing about program cuts or swaps will result placing the Pentagon on an evolutionary pathway toward fielding a military force that protects the real security interests of the American people.

Bottom line: The Pentagon is in a crisis, the editors of the New Times would unknowingly reinforce it.  Readers interested in how we might reform the Pentagon’s self-destructive-decision process are referred to my testimony cited in the previous paragraph or the somewhat different recommendations in a remarkable new anthology, America’s Defense Meltdown, published by the Center for Defense Information. This new anthology is designed to give President Obama and Congress a guide to placing the Pentagon back onto a pathway toward an effective defense at a cost a nation in recession can afford.  Written by retired military officers and civilians with over 350 years experience in the defense business, this book is unique in that it provides a view from the trenches by people who have struggle to reform the way the Pentagon does business.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at





Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at