Editorial Board

Pentagon Cuts to Strengthen America’s Defense and Economy: View

A culture of shared sacrifice is one of the greatest strengths of the U.S.’s volunteer military. It is not, however, a good basis on which to decide budget cuts.

Facing at least $450 billion in reductions over the next decade -- and as much as $1 trillion total if the congressional deficit supercommittee fails to reach a consensus and the automatic deficit trigger kicks in -- Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta may be tempted to follow precedent and ask for trims across the services and their programs. But it would be far better for U.S. security, and future budgets, if Panetta focused on eliminating clearly identified waste and redundancies.

Although some big-ticket items, like drawing down troop levels in Afghanistan, will have to play out politically, the Pentagon could act quickly to halt production on a number of unnecessary projects. The savings could be spent on programs that will prepare us for our immediate and future challenges. We have a few suggestions for where to cut:

-- The F-35 Lightning II. Lockheed-Martin Corp.’s next-generation fighter plane is a wonder of versatility, but the current generation (the ubiquitous F-16, among others) is still vastly superior to the competition -- only one American fighter jet has been shot down by enemy fire in the past 40 years. The Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission advocated eliminating the Marine Corps version of the F-35 and trimming by half the number going to the Navy and Air Force, for a savings of $30 billion over the next four years. We find that too timid: The entire $385 billion program should be on the chopping block.

-- At a time when the Navy is questioning whether it needs (or can afford) all 11 carrier groups it has, why would it want to spend $120 billion on 10 new carriers that offer few significant improvements over the current Nimitz class? (Especially given that the signal upgrade, a new electromagnetic catapult system, is designed in part to launch the equally unnecessary F-35.) Carriers are big, easy targets in an era defined by asymmetric warfare, and are vulnerable to vastly improved anti-ship weapons. When China launched its first aircraft carrier in August, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. “would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment.” We would welcome the same from the U.S. Navy.

-- The M1 Abrams tank. The mainstay of combat operations since 1980, the M1 is a fine vehicle, but we already have plenty. Don’t take our word for it, but that of Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox, the Army’s deputy chief of staff. “We’ve got a very fit and complete fleet,” he told a Senate committee last spring. “And that’s what has caused us to stop buying something that we no longer need.”

The Army says it could save $1.3 billion a year if it temporarily shut down the M1 manufacturing plant in Ohio for three years. But, as so often happens when a weapons system is under review, a group of congressmen has rallied around the manufacturer -- in this case, a unit of General Dynamics Corp. -- to keep production going. In general, these scenarios in which the military claims to not want a program that Congress is intent on saving are Kabuki theater; the truth is that the generals can kill anything they are intent on killing.

None of this is to say that we should halt or impair military research and development. In fact, innovative programs should get more money. The Predator and other drone programs are excellent examples of relatively cheap technologies that have paid huge dividends, and deserve expanded budgets. To free up that money, however, Panetta has to find big savings, and programs such those above -- as well as the health-care program for service members and veterans, which will be the subject of a future editorial -- are obvious targets for trims that will actually make the U.S. more secure.