The Coming Firefight over Defense Spending

The new Administration will have to balance a multitude of conflicting demands when it comes to paying for a 21st century military

By Stan Crock

What's the toughest challenge Donald Rumsfeld will face as Defense Secretary? Believe it or not, juggling numbers. Though there's some quibbling over the size of the gap, just about everyone agrees that the 2001 defense budget -- which comes in at an even $300 billion -- isn't big enough to bankroll every weapons program on the drawing boards. Some estimates of the gulf between wish and reality are as low as $30 billion a year, while others soar to $100 billion.

The real debate is whether the country needs even more money to fund essential weapons, or whether simply too many weapons are in development to begin with. President-elect George W. Bush seemed to take the latter position during the campaign when he suggested skipping a generation of weapons. But at his confirmation hearing, Rumsfeld seemed troubled by that notion, arguing that much of the military's already creaky hardware would grow even older while the armed forces await new gear.

The new Administration will have to decide such questions -- and soon. Signs of strain are already showing: the services' inability to meet modernization goals, problems with morale, recruitment, and the retention of troops, who feel their needs get short shrift beside those of big-ticket weapons programs. "If you allow this gap to persist over time, you will have some really corrosive effects on the military," warns Michele A. Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official in the Clinton Administration.


  The fight will be heated on Capitol Hill. Republican hawks and the defense industry have yet to see a weapon blueprint they don't like. Expect them to argue for more and more money. But many mainstream defense analysts wonder whether new priorities should be set. After all, they say, many of the proposed weapons are geared toward protecting the U.S. from attack by a major superpower -- the sort of enemy that hasn't existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. True, some hawks point to the emergence of China as a threat, but that's not likely to be an issue for at least two decades.

Besides, say most analysts, after the drubbing Iraq took in the Gulf War, no adversary would be dumb enough to fight a conventional war against the overwhelming power of the U.S. Instead, the experts predict that an enemy would most likely target U.S. weaknesses, such as our reliance on computers and satellites.

What's more, some of today's biggest threats may be temporary. If rapprochement continues on the North Korean Peninsula, Iranian democracy allows reformers to gain more power, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein dies, the three current "states of concern" won't be threats any longer -- an inconvenient prospect for advocates of a national missile defense system. Maybe America just won't need all those weapons.


  So what's to cut? Most likely to take a hit are Air Force plans to buy 339 of Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptors for a cool $67 billion, plus the $223 billion plan to develop a Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which the Air Force, Marines, Navy, and the British all say they intend to buy. Williamson Murray of the Institute for Defense Analyses predicts that F-22 purchases could be pared to as few as 120, while the JSF, which is still under development in a competition between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, could be scrapped altogether.

Some Navy ships may get sunk, too. Ivan Eland, a defense expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, would junk the Virginia-class submarines, which he says aren't as good as the Seawolf subs they will replace. The consensus of analysts is that the U.S. won't face a threat on the open seas for at least 25 years, when the Virginia-class subs -- being built jointly by General Dynamics and Newport News Shipbuilding -- will be obsolete.

Eland rejects the argument made by sub proponents that they are needed for gathering intelligence, saying cheaper alternatives include satellites and aircraft, both the manned and unmanned varieties. "If we can't cut that back, we can't do anything," he says of the Virginia-class boats.


  Ships such as the DD-21 land-attack destroyer, which teams from Litton-Raytheon and General Dynamics-Lockheed Martin are competing to build, and the missile-laden arsenal ship, which Bush finds intriguing, also should be scrapped in favor of multifunction ships such as the DD-51, Eland says.

The Army also could come under fire. Bush has said he wants to look at scaling back United Defense's Crusader, a big howitzer. Plans for building as many as 1,100 units have already been cut to 480, a reduction that will save $11 billion over the life of the program, says Chris Hellman of the Center for Defense Information, a liberal watchdog group. Boeing's $48 billion Comanche helicopter program also may not be needed, Hellman adds.

Naturally, powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill will bristle at many of these cuts, especially those where construction would take place in their districts. When Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) takes over again as Majority Leader and Senator John Warner (R-Va.) assumes the chair of the Armed Services Committee in the new Congress, ships built in Mississippi and Virginia won't be easy targets for budget-cutters.

Republicans have been railing for years that the Clinton Administration did nothing about restructuring the military to confront the new national defense challenges of the 21st century. Now we'll see if the GOP will quite literally put its money where its mouth has been.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for Business Week from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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