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The Press and Panetta

The silence in the press about the overheated rhetoric and dubious myths from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta makes for a very unhappy comparison of today’s defense journalism compared to previous eras when, for example, SecDef Casper Weinberger was the subject of serious critical analysis.

Prior to Tuesday of last week, Panetta had been sprinkling Washington D.C. with words like “doomsday mechanism,” “catastrophic,” and “shooting ourselves in the head” to describe any cuts in the Pentagon’s budget beyond the $450 over 10 years he and President Obama have already committed to. Panetta had set a new standard for overheated rhetoric to defend the Pentagon’s budget, and yet the press reported his words without suggesting anything out of the ordinary-thereby creating the impression that the rhetoric was completely appropriate.

Then on Tuesday October 11, a new Leon Panetta was rolled out in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Gone were the apocalyptic lamentations proclaiming a return to 2007 levels of Pentagon spending to be the end of budget life as we know it-even if it is also true that 2007 was a post-World War II high at the time, $73 billion higher than spending in 2000, and $38 billion above average annual spending during the Cold War.

The new, more pensive Panetta called for “the thoughtful debate the entire country needs to have on how to sustain the nation’s strength.in a time of growing fiscal constraint.” He even eschewed hectoring Congress to go find cuts in entitlement spending to permit an unperturbed Pentagon budget. He used the “catastrophic damage” phrasing just once, and it was buried in the back of the speech.

The press kept itself silent. It is impossible to tell if any reporters discerned the new cooler rhetoric.

Panetta’s restraint and call for thoughtfulness didn’t last long, however. Less than 24 hours later, he was back at it, making an analogy that advocates of deeper cuts were the Nazis at Bastogne, Belgium in World War II and he was the storied US commander there who told them “Nuts” when they demanded surrender-a pretty outrageous assertion about both his critics and himself. A day later at the House Armed Services Committee, the overblown rhetoric was repeated, over and over again.

Again, the press remained silent, other than to repeat what Panetta said.

The Wilson Center speech also attempted to take the intellectual high road by putting budget problems in a strategic context and to prioritize solutions. However, the substance of these remarks was as ethereal as his transient attempt at rhetorical restraint.

He started with strategic pabulum straight from the bowels of the Pentagon bureaucracy. He read off a litany of threats: Iraq, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, “rising powers” in the “Asia-Pacific region” (that would be China) and cyber security without his (or the press) acknowledging the usual criticism such laundry lists attract. When virtually the same catalog of threats was offered in DOD’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, it was widely panned as having no identifiable strategic framework or priorities. As one more insightful critic, Franklin C. Spinney, pointed out, such lists-and the conventional wisdom critique of them-do not even recognize the Pentagon’s fundamental problems.

Now, the issue was content, rather than style. And, still no comments from any of the many press articles I read about the Wilson Center speech.

Then came the whopper. Panetta asserted “the American military today is without question the finest fighting force that has ever existed.” It is a phraseology commonly used by American politicians of both political parties to profess their support for the troops.

Apparently, seeing nothing worthy of comment, the press let it pass, as it has scores of times previously. I saw not a single article even hinting that Panetta’s data and logic had the slightest flaw.

Panetta’s “finest” US Navy “that has ever existed” has shrunk from 316 battleforce ships in 2001 to 287 in 2011, a decline of 10 percent. It is not a smaller, newer fleet; it is a smaller, older fleet-about four years older per ship, on average, than it was in 2001. Also, for the past year the press has been constantly reporting on severe maintenance and readiness problems throughout the fleet.

Panetta’s best ever Air Force declined from 142 fighter and bomber squadrons to 72 during the same 2001-2012 period, a decline of 49 percent, and the inventory has increased to an all-time high average for aircraft age: 23 years. Fighter pilot air training hours today are one-half of what they were in the 1970s, an era not touted for high readiness.

The Army’s brigade combat teams did grow from 44 to 45. But major Army equipment inventories are mostly older, and in 2006, the House Armed Services Committee leaked a memo documenting historic lows in the readiness of active Army units in the US. The analysis has not been publicly updated; we should worry that it has gotten worse, not better.

We got this smaller, older, less ready force not because of less money but because of more. In addition to the $1.3 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Congress and Presidents Bush and Obama added another $1 trillion to the “base” (non-war) parts of the defense budget.

One might see in the press the sometimes article about the age of the US air- and sea-borne fleets, but that is usually accompanied by implications that the defense budget is tight, not bloated.

Perhaps, if writers had noted the shrinking, aging, less ready to fight forces that resulted from higher, not lower, budgets, editors and readers would have asked for an explanation of the counterintuitive assertion. That, in turn, would have required some, but actually not a lot of, research and, worse, a discussion of how the conventional wisdom about the defense budget-that more money means better, stronger defenses-is badly wrong and misinformed. (One of the several places inquisitive reporters might have found their way to is a recent anthology I and nine authors with more than 400 years of defense related experience wrote: The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It)

Panetta’s empty “finest ever” rhetoric does not even stand up to a comparison of US armed forces to themselves ten years ago. The pretense that we outmatch the rest of the world (as much as we outspend it) relies on an absence of meaningful analysis, certainly none that Panetta has presented-or that anyone in the press asked for.

If an extra trillion dollars in the last ten years meant a decaying defense force, how does Panetta say he is going to prevent a hollowing out of our forces at the modestly lower budget levels he says he can live with? Again, no questions were asked.

He did list his general budget cutting recommendations; they were great fodder for scores of questions, none of which made it to my computer screen.

To his credit, Panetta’s Wilson Center speech’s first budget cutting priority was “ruthlessly pursuing efficiencies and streamlining efforts designed to eliminate overhead infrastructure, waste and duplication,” and Thursday at the House Armed Services Committee he said he would accelerate the Pentagon’s deadline for its meeting the Constitutional requirement-never before complied with-that it account for the trillions of dollars it has been spending. If actually done, he will permit himself and future decision makers to begin to understand how much spending is waste, duplication, abuse, excess overhead, doctored contractor spending records and much, much more. However, the audit Panetta says he wants to achieve is too modest to provide the comprehensive and detailed data he will really need to identify the overhead, waste and duplication he says he wants to ferret out. When you scratch his words, they seem a little hollow, but you would never know it by reading any articles about Panetta’s statements.

Then, Panetta’s budget cutting priorities went completely off the tracks. His number two priority-in agreement with much of today’s conventional wisdom-is to cut personnel costs. The number three priority is to cut force structure, which really means taking people out of the force, thereby reducing combat units and their support. Panetta’s last place to cut is “modernization,” meaning hardware.

He put a lot of rhetoric around his solicitude for the troops both at the Wilson Center and later at the House Armed Services Committee, but it is beginning to emerge that his real budget priorities are to cut people first and hardware last. It is no doubt true that pay and benefits costs are out of control in the Pentagon, but the same is true of hardware-in spades. The last GAO measure of hardware cost growth put it at $300 billion.

But again, nothing was written to question or even just probe Panetta’s recommendations.

Life is simple for Leon Panetta: he can say anything he wants without the slightest fear of probing questions. The place one would start is, of course, research, but there is not the slightest indication that the press is scratching the surface of what Secretary Panetta is saying. Casper Weinberger, rest his soul, must be seething with jealousy.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project and editor of The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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