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Cutting the Military Budget, Continued

By Taylor Marvin

US Navy F/A-18C, one of the aircraft scheduled to be replaced by the F-35. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Tyler Caswell.

US Navy F/A-18C, one of the aircraft scheduled to be replaced by the F-35. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Tyler Caswell.

The New York Times has a recent editorial criticizing Defense Secretary Gates’ recent military budget:

“Some of that same managerial sense is evident in the Pentagon’s latest $553 billion request ($118 billion more is requested for Iraq and Afghanistan). But Mr. Gates did not go far enough. The $78 billion in spending cuts he announced last month were not really cuts, but merely reductions in projected hefty increases.”

At Information Dissemination Bryan McGrath disagrees with the Times’ main points, specifically calls to cut back planned orders for F-35 As and Cs (unprofessionally, McGrath doesn’t link back to the Times piece):

“Cutting back on the F-35 MIGHT make sense, if what they were suggesting was elimination of the STOVL version–but they’re not saying that. Complaining about doubling costs per plane seems odd when an across the board cut would undoubtedly raise unit costs.  I imagine what they are REALLY opposed to is the total price, and defense officials are working hard to get them under control.  But with the F-22 already chopped, we’ve cast our lot with the F-35 and we need to press forward.”

This is a good point. The F-35 is a troubled program. But cost increases should be expected on any type of development program, especially one as ambitious as the F-35. Budget overruns are an inescapable part of building fighter jets, and it’s hard to imagine 5 separate development efforts to replace the Air Force A-10s, F-16s and F-15 Strike Eagles, Navy F/A-18s and Marine AV-8 Harrier IIs the F-35 is designed to replace being less expensive. There’s a lot about the F-35 that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. By attempting to design an aircraft that works well in the air superiority, strike, and close air support roles the military is probably ensuring that it gets one that does nothing really well, and at greater operational cost than individual mission dedicated aircraft. But the United States has already invested so much in the F-35 that at this point there’s no turning back- if America wants to have a modern multirole aircraft by the 2040s the F-35 has to succeed, because there are literally no other manned fighters in development. Wide proliferation of advanced anti-air missile technology means that some degree of stealthiness is required for future strike missions to be survivable in an increasing number of theaters. By 2030s the F-16 and F/A-18 family will be approaching 60 years old, and their lack of stealth will likely severely limit their future utility. Good arguments can be made that the prospect of a future major war are so unlikely that an advanced fighter isn’t really necessary, but proponents of reduced American military spending need to accept that significant cuts to the F-35 program would have a disproportionately large impact on the size of the future US combat aircraft fleet. This doesn’t mean that the F-35 program should be held sacred, but it’s important to recognize that savings from reducing the number of F-35s built would be significantly offset by increases in unit cost. Investing so heavily in such an ambitious program probably wasn’t wise to begin with, but at this point America has to accept the high cost of the F-35 program.

McGrath’s also critical of the Times stance on redistributing the funding balance between services, which proposes cutting the Navy and Air Force budgets in favor of the Army and Marine Corp. Ending the rough equality in service funding is a good idea. However, allocating more funds to land forces is a poor argument. The security challenges facing the US and its allies in the foreseeable future- containing rouge states like North Korea, constraining regional rivals like Iran, and deterring Russia and China- are all primarily maritime challenges. As major states become increasingly unwilling to fight prohibitively costly land wars, military influence in the modern world is increasing based on inherently less destructive sea and air power. After the long debacle of Iran and Afghanistan, the US is wisely unlikely to enter another ground war in the next two decades, reducing the justification for preserving high Army funding. Drastically cutting land force spending has the added benefit of deterring American policymakers from stumbling into long wars- the widespread myth of complete American supremacy in ground warfare undoubtably contributed to the Bush administration’s refusal to consider the possibility that the war in Iraq would quickly turn into a protracted counterinsurgency. This doesn’t mean that the Navy and Air Force should be immune from cuts. The idea that the United States somehow needs 9 more aircraft carriers than its closer naval competitors is ridiculous, as is the disconnect between the Air Force’s size and likely future requirements. However, it is certain that land forces are much less relevant to the security of the United States than air and sea power. The United States need to dramatically cut its military spending, which has grown completely beyond any reasonable justification. But for drastic cuts to be politically acceptable they need to carefully consider the actual security challenges likely to face the US in the future, and the varying practical utility of different programs and services. By paying only lip service to the actual intricacies of these issues the Times editorial moves us farther away from the goal.

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