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Modernize This

September 15, 2011

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal spurred some predictable commentary about the fallacy of cutting our defense budget at a time when 1980s era platforms are falling into obsolescence. The opening of the article, which apparently “says it all,” is:

When Lt. David A. Deptula II, an Air Force pilot, climbed into his fighter plane at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan in 2008, it wasn’t the first time a pilot named David Deptula had been at the controls. Lt. Deptula’s father flew the very same F-15 when it was fresh off the McDonnell Douglas Corp. assembly line 30 years earlier.

“We have a geriatric Air Force,” says the senior David A. Deptula, a retired three-star general. When flying that F-15 in 1999, he had to make an emergency landing in Turkey after disintegrating wiring caused a bunch of cockpit warning lights to flash on one after another.

Now, one might naturally pose two remedies to this problem. One would be to ensure that Lt. Depetula would have an entirely new air frame to pilot, such as the F-22. It’s not his father’s air superiority fighter, quite literally. Of course, the F-22 has been grounded since May. So too is the Joint Strike Fighter. The entire “Fifth Generation Fighter” fleet is currently limited to tarmac superiority operations.

What should be clear is that maintaining a viable fleet of aircraft is not simply a function of more money and more spending for new air frames. Indeed, the massive costs of programs such as the F-22 and F-35 has arguably crowded out the budgetary and organizational priorities for modernizing older air frames. Now, many would argue that there is no such thing as a generation “4.5” or “4.8” aircraft, but it is undeniable that the reliance on enormously expensive aircraft leaves ones air fleet open to these sorts of risks.

Much of the rest of the story details the sorry state the Navy and Air Force are in due to their outdated platforms, and the battle-worn erosion of Army equipment readiness due to the strains of two major wars in the past decade.

The notion that this can all be fixed if we simply cut nothing and expand the defense budget is fallacious. Modernization efforts failed in the 2000s and they will continue to fail so long as the dysfunctional relati0nship between the Department of Defense, Congress, and industry continues.

For fear of losing job programs, unnecessary and ineffective programs survive for years and billions in additional funding until some new contract can placate political concerns or overcome bureaucratic inertia. For want of a strategy willing to acknowledge any limits to US power or the ability of the US economy to finance it, the US has avoided “hard choices” and simply kicked the can further into the future.

Absolutely critics are correct that the current defense posture is unsustainable. It is. The problem is the fiscal resources necessary to save it are also currently unsustainable politically. Even if Congress somehow decided not to cut the defense budget, a reversion to the old habits would leave us with a military that, despite a decade of being handed everything politically feasible, has far fewer functional platforms than what it is paying for.

However, these sort of bad practices are allowed to persist and fester within political and bureaucratic culture because its myriad practitioners receive no oversight and refuse to accept resource constraints before attempting to subvert those reforms as long as possible.

Like it or not, resource constraints exist. Saying that something is necessary for the national defense does not make resources available ex nihilo. The result of our current decisions, which is to say, cost-overrunning bloated programs for 5th generation fighters, the total non-attention to the US Navy and air superiority capabilities in lieu of two protracted land wars and occupations, among other questionable choices, has been an incoherent allocation of resources. Being unwilling to prioritize platforms or craft an alternative strategy to husband resources does not mean the US can avoid triage indefinitely, it just means that triage will come according to the vicissitudes of fate, political death rattles, and smashed rice bowls. Even if a rational strategic and logistical assessment were to conclude the Defense budget still had to rise, the notion that there is nothing in it worth cutting for fear of harming national security is dangerous. It poisons the well for future defense acquisitions and planning and merely protects entrenched interests and those with the greatest bureaucratic inertia and talent. Since the growth of programs does not simply consume resources, but create political and bureaucratic power, a refusal to rein in the simultaneous profligacy and inefficiency of our defense apparatus.

To refuse to excise rotting, festering matter from a patient from the defense budget for vaguely substantiated fear of harming genuinely necessary spending is not being tough, it is unserious. It merely condemns the American military to more dangerous and debilitating treatments later.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Fritz permalink
    September 16, 2011 9:34 am

    This story was published somewhere in 2007 when F-15s were disintegrating in midair. I remember because it was about how that was hurting Iraq during the Surge because F-15s were the primary close air support platform at the time and we had a lull in coverage until a new carrier could come on station.

    Old aircraft that are falling apart sucks. So do aircraft that cost hundreds of millions but crash or their pilots get poisoned by the oxygen system.

    • September 16, 2011 9:39 am

      Indeed. And unfortunately the result of our inability to curtail our spending habits is that serious modernization plans for F-15s or oversight for the F-22s can’t achieve bureaucratic inertia.

      Positing simply more spending as a solution is sort of like saying, “We’re losing money on every unit sold, but we’re making up for it in volume.”

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