Speaking before a national Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Monday in Phoenix, Arizona, President Obama had sharp words for members of Congress: “If Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto it.” Obama’s warning comes after the House approved in late July by a vote of 400-30 a $636 billion Pentagon spending bill, as the Pentagon executes an obstacle-laden withdrawal from Iraq while shifting U.S. military might to Afghanistan. Obama’s reasons for moderating the defense budget are many.
To name a few, record levels of government spending to combat the financial crisis and stimulate the recession economy has diminished the government’s stores of financial flexibility, stores which it must ration ever more scrupulously to achieve the Obama administration’s ambitious agenda – a public healthcare option, alternative energy entrepreneurship, and an expanded diplomatic corps.
Most significantly for the Pentagon, a long-standing call for reforming defense spending, contracting and procurement, most recently espoused by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Foreign Affairs magazine, is also motivating Obama’s stern message. The administration’s success or failure in achieving the defense spending reforms it seeks will profoundly affect not only the Iraq and Afghan wars, but also the future of U.S. military policy.
As Secretary Gates recently remarked to the Economic Club of Chicago, today’s military procurement challenges have affected his predecessors for over two hundred years. When the first Secretary of War, Henry Knox, was tasked with creating the first U.S. naval fleet, he eventually had to placate the U.S. Congress by settling on six frigates that were built at six different shipyards in as many states. Secretary Gates inferred from this anecdote that “the influence of politics and parochial interests in defense matters is as old as the Republic itself.”
Nowhere does the political debate over military procurement rage more hotly now than over defense spending on helicopters, tanks, ships, and planes. Defense manufacturers argue that maligned projects such as the F-22 are core elements of the Pentagon’s future mission, while critics question the utility of such costly capital at a time when U.S. war fighters and analysts predict future threats are less likely than ever to involve the kind of great power conflicts which these giants of air, land, and sea were intended to fight. These investments, in turn, create outsize replacement costs, the critics assert. As one example of cost, the GAO estimates in a report to the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces in 2008 that “based on GAO’s analysis of Army cost estimates and cost data…the Army’s plans to equip modular units, expand the force, reset equipment, and replace prepositioned equipment are likely to cost at least $190 billion dollars through fiscal year 2013.”
Critics of defense procurement also point to outsize manufacturer influence on Capitol Hill as a source of the defense budget’s woes. Lockheed Martin, the defense manufacturer of the F-22, manufactures parts of the advanced fighter jet in dozens of states, which in turn generates jobs in more Congressional districts, some of whose elected members directly influence the drafting of the defense spending budget bill. Of particular concern to certain members of Congress in Defense-manufacturer heavy districts is what happens to constituents working on Pentagon projects that the Pentagon discontinues as part of the slimmer defense budget Obama seeks.
Critics say the recently passed House budget does little to answer this question. It contains money for a much-maligned VH-71 Presidential helicopter fleet and cargo planes, which the Pentagon says are unnecessary and a waste of money. Add to this list the F-22, which critics ridicule as a Cold War relic, the DDG-1000 destroyer, and future long-range bombers, and the list of Congressional districts housing pieces of these threatened projects becomes remarkably long. There is also a concern that such spending diverts dollars from other Pentagon missions. Hundreds of billions spent on advanced fighter jets, tanks, and submarines arguably means fewer dollars to support operations for humanitarian crises and low-intensity conflicts elsewhere, let alone much needed care for U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with varying degrees of life altering injuries.
Adding to the administration’s urgency for reform is the expansion of base-closing costs associated with Iraqi withdrawal. In a report published in March 2009, “Iraq: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that 283 U.S. installations in Iraq will need to be shuttered or transferred to the Iraqis. The report notes that, in the past, to shutter a small base takes 1 to 2 months, but the large installations which dot Iraq’s landscape could take significantly longer to close or hand over.
Furthermore, the U.S. military has about 170,000 pieces of equipment worth approximately $16.5 billion USD strewn about Iraq either in bases, the green zone or other places of high value. This equipment simply cannot be left in place for the Iraqis to have. Rarely has that happened. Following the Second World War, the United States either shipped home or sold surplus equipment to its European allies.
These estimates do not even begin to account for the supplemental funding required when a war winds down. In replacement costs alone the Iraq war has taken a severe toll on tanks, trucks, guns and other equipment. According to a 2006 USA Today article, Wars wearing down military gear at cost of about $2 billion a month, it is estimated that upwards of $2 billion USD worth of military equipment, just from the Army and Marine Corps branches, is being destroyed or worn out each month in Iraq and Afghanistan. While with the Iraq Study Group, current Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta estimated that in order to reequip returning units from Iraq at full combat strength, it will cost anywhere from $50 billion to $60 billion USD.
In logistics alone, the equipment will need to be brought out of Iraq somehow. In an interview with Mother Jones, Lt. General William Pagonis, a former logistics chief with the U.S. military during the first Gulf War, said that the equipment more than likely would have to be brought back to the U.S. given the security situation in and around Iraq. “If you don’t bring their equipment home, you’ll have combat brigades with no equipment. And so it’ll have to be a prudent trade-off. It takes a ship 12 to 15 days across the ocean, and then the cargo has to be offloaded in the United States and taken by railcar to the units. The big decision is how much you are going to leave in company for the Iraqis…Some of the equipment will be taken out—communications equipment, cryptic equipment—but the bases most likely will be turned over to the Iraqis I’d assume, because they’re going to have to take over the security missions.”
The GAO report, “Iraq: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight,” goes on in regards to the closing costs of ending the Iraq war, “As of November 2008, there were 283 U.S. installations in Iraq that will need to be closed or turned over to Iraqi forces. According to U.S. Army officials, experience has shown that it takes 1 to 2 months to close the smallest platoon- or company-size installations, which contain between 16 and 200 combat soldiers or marines. However, MNF-I has never closed large, complex installations—such as Balad Air Force Base, which contains about 24,000 inhabitants and has matured over 5 years. U.S. Army officials estimate it could take longer than 18 months to close a base of that size.”
One point that isn’t debatable is the significant increase in the defense budget since 2001. U.S. Department of Defense spending has more than doubled from FY01 ($316 billion) to FY09 ($662 billion). President Obama’s defense budget for FY2010 is projected to be $664 billion. The Base Budget from FY01 to FY09 is $3,603 billion.
These numbers are relatively comparable to a number of years during the Cold War but the trend is streaming upwards. Meaning that since 2001 the U.S. is spending considerable more than it did during the Cold War. From the years 1948 to 1991 the largest amount allocated to defense spending was $388.9 billion in 1968 and the total spent during the Cold War was $13.1 Trillion. The end result of current defense spending is that if current trends continue and the U.S. faces more or less the same series of threats, in two decades or more the United States will outpace its spending to that spent during the Cold War.
The United States has had to recalibrate its defense posture to account for a multipolar world and an obstacle-laden Iraq recovery, which so far has not realized the hopes of post-war planners that it would pay for itself as Europe did through the eventual purchase of U.S. goods following the European Economic Recovery Program’s implementation. In this new reality, the greatest U.S. security threat comes not from a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, but from much smaller non-state actors and insurgent networks, including but not limited to those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether or not the Obama administration succeeds with its reforms may determine whether or not the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and re-deployment to Afghanistan receive the kind of funding which each urgently needs.