Bush Versus the Defense Establishment?

A large dose of presidential courage will be required to effect the drastic changes needed in weapons spending priorities.

In a major speech on defense policy at the Citadel military academy in South Carolina during the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush advocated taking advantage of today’s relatively benign international environment to modernize existing weapons only selectively and skip a generation of military technology. Bush said his goal would be to move beyond marginal improvements by replacing existing programs with new technologies and strategies. To achieve this technological leap forward, he pledged to “earmark at least 20 percent of the [Department of Defense’s (DOD’s)] procurement budget for acquisition programs that propel America generations ahead in military technology.” In addition, he promised to “commit an additional $20 billion to defense R&D between the time I take office and 2006.”

After he became president, Bush began a review of U.S. military strategy. Although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has not yet made public the results of that review, leaks to the press seem to indicate that major changes may be coming. Rumsfeld has reportedly decided that the United States should pay more attention to East Asian security and less attention to European security. In addition, the United States may move away from sizing its forces to fight two regional wars (for example, in Korea and the Persian Gulf) nearly simultaneously. The secretary may also initiate drastic changes in weapons procurement that go straight to the core missions of the military services. According to some reports, because the huge 100,000-ton aircraft carriers are becoming more vulnerable to antiship missiles, the Navy may be asked to build smaller flat-deck ships. Similarly, increased vulnerability of airbases near the front to enemy surface-to-surface missiles may prompt increased emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles and long-range bombers with cruise missiles. Using unmanned aerial vehicles could reduce the number of combat deaths among pilots. The long-range bombers could operate from more distant air bases in the theater or even from the United States.

All of those ideas are worthwhile and should be vigorously pursued. The administration seems to have a genuine desire to shake up defense policy and the military bureaucracy. But to secure the money to pay for such changes, some existing weapons will need to be cut. In a May 2001 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, the president acknowledged that reality, saying that, “We cannot transform our military using old weapons and old plans.” Yet, according to press reports, a panel of defense experts commissioned by Rumsfeld has recommended retaining most, if not all, core weapon systems. Still, if Bush and Rumsfeld are truly committed to transforming the way the United States fights, there are plenty of current weapons that could be terminated without affecting U.S. national security. To succeed, however, Bush will be forced to take on the defense establishment: the military services; the defense firms; and most important, the members of Congress who have a large stake in current procurement plans.

Today’s obsolete force structure

After the Cold War ended, U.S. military forces were reduced fairly uniformly across the board, except for the much smaller Marine Corps, which has special clout on Capitol Hill. Army divisions were cut by 44 percent (from 18 to 10), Navy ships by 44 percent (from 566 to 316), and Air Force air wings by 50 percent (from 25 to 12.5), while Marine Corps personnel suffered only a 12 percent reduction (to 173,000 from 197,000). Relatively equal cuts across the services left a force that was essentially “Cold War Lite.” Such equal reductions resulted from an informal agreement among the services not to undermine each other’s weapons, force structure, and budgets. Congress seems to respect that agreement. All players in the game essentially want to avoid too much organizational conflict and turmoil.

In addition, many weapon systems that were designed originally to fight the Soviet Union have remained in the pipeline. Some weapons are simply unneeded, redundant, or too expensive. Still others are pork projects designed to provide nothing more than employment in states and districts of key members of Congress.

U.S. force structure is currently built on fighting two major regional wars nearly simultaneously. However, the chances of two rogue nations synchronizing aggression against their neighbors is very low, according to a 1997 report by the independent National Defense Panel (NDP), composed of ex-senior defense officials and pillars of the defense industry. Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union did not try to start a war elsewhere to take advantage of U.S. preoccupation with wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. The requirement to fight two wars simultaneously is rooted in the legacy of World War II, when the United States fought Germany and Japan at the same time.

The NDP further stated that the two-war criterion was not a national strategy but a way of justifying existing forces. That conclusion is obvious to anyone who examined the results of the Clinton administration’s 1993 Bottom-Up Review (BUR). The BUR used the scenario of nearly simultaneous wars in Korea and the Persian Gulf and posited two identical force blocks to fight them. Each force block consisted of four to five Army divisions, four to five Marine Expeditionary Brigades, 10 Air Force air wings, 100 Air Force heavy bombers, four to five Navy aircraft carrier battle groups, and special operations forces. Yet a war in Korea would probably require more U.S. air power and fewer ground forces, whereas a conflict in the Persian Gulf would require the reverse. Despite the NDP’s critique of the two-war criterion, DOD continues to use it.

The Pentagon routinely stuffs the pipeline with too many weapons systems for its budget.

Indeed, the likelihood of war in the two theaters continues to decline. North Korea is starving and lacks the fuel for an invasion of the south. As a result of the north’s failing economy, it has responded positively to South Korea’s sunshine policy, pledging to suspend missile testing and end its drive to obtain nuclear weapons. North Korea’s objectives seem to be to improve relations with the outside world and obtain foreign aid. Similarly, Iraq’s economy has been devastated by the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, the Persian Gulf War, and more than a decade of comprehensive and grinding economic sanctions. The sanctions have severely impaired Saddam Hussein’s effort to rebuild his military, about half of which was destroyed in Gulf War. Much doubt exists today about whether the Iraqi armed forces could mount a successful offensive over an extended territory into Saudi Arabia.

Even in the unlikely event that two regional wars (to which the United States felt it had to respond) erupted at the same time, the U.S. military could fight them sequentially rather than simultaneously. With the Cold War’s end, the urgency of immediately fighting orchestrated threats by an enemy superpower is gone. Any potential regional aggressor watching the United States pound another small rogue state would probably be deterred by the prospect of becoming the next victim of the overwhelmingly dominant U.S. military.

Thus, the Bush administration should repudiate the two-war criterion. The ability to fight “one-plus” wars is more than enough to deter potential regional foes. The “plus” would consist of bombers and tactical fighters–in numbers greater than those needed to fight one war–to hedge against a particularly difficult foe. (The Chinese threat, if it materializes, might fit into that category.) In the future, if the past is any guide, the United States might have to battle an opponent that it did not expect to fight. Extra air power is a good hedge against uncertainty, because it now dominates warfare and is a U.S. comparative advantage.

Which weapons can be eliminated?

According to a range of studies, an annual disparity of $50 billion to $100 billion exists between the Pentagon’s weapons procurement plan and the funds that will be available to pay for it. Although this disparity has been widely publicized in the media as “underfunding,” it is nothing new and should really be called “overprogramming.” The Pentagon routinely stuffs the pipeline with too many weapon systems for its budget. Instead of terminating some weapons and producing others at more efficient higher rates of production, the services and their political constituencies (companies who produce the weapons and the members of Congress who represent them) keep too many systems alive. Budgets are constrained and unit costs of weapons inevitably rise, leading to production of weapons at grossly inefficient rates. (For example, at the pinnacle of absurdity, one defense contractor is building one half of the Virginia-class submarine and another contractor is building the other half.) Pruning the weapons tree by eliminating some questionable systems would allow other more important systems to be purchased with greater efficiency and would also free up money for R&D to, in Bush’s words, “skip a generation of technology.”

The time is ideal for cutting defense programs in order to fund weapons technology to use against potential future threats. The United States is now on course to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on current-generation weapons. Yet in the 20 to 30 years that would probably be required for a major security threat to arise, most of those weapons will become obsolete or at least obsolescent. The following weapons are questionable and should be terminated:

F-22 Tactical Fighter Aircraft. The stealthy F-22 is the most advanced plane for aerial combat ever produced. At about $180 million dollars each ($63 billion in total program cost divided by 341 aircraft to be purchased), it is also the most expensive. The aircraft was originally designed during the Cold War to counter a sophisticated future threat from Soviet fighter planes that never came to fruition. In the post-Cold War world, the United States–with greater quantities of advanced fighters (including the F-15C) than any other nation and the sophisticated AWACs air control aircraft to manage the air battle–already has crushing air supremacy over any other air force on the planet.

For air-to-air combat, the Air Force could more cheaply produce new upgraded F-15Cs. After all, in an age in which electronics and sophisticated munitions are king, buying a new-generation platform is not nearly as critical. The Air Force version of the tactical Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which is much less costly per unit than the F-22, should eventually be purchased to replace the F-16 aircraft in the ground attack role. With the end of the cold War and the demise of the only major air-to-air threat, the Air Force needs a cheaper aircraft that is optimized for bombing targets on the ground, such as the JSF, rather than an air superiority fighter, such as the F-22.

F-18E/F Fighter Aircraft. At about $85 million each ($47 billion in total program costs divided by 548 aircraft), the F-18E/F Super Hornet tactical fighter, the successor to the F-18C/D Hornet, is an expensive way to achieve a marginal improvement in naval aircraft. The F-18C/D can already provide an adequate defense for the aircraft carrier battle group against future air threats, which are limited. For attacking targets on land, the F-18C/D does have a limited range, especially when the aircraft carrier is being pushed farther out to sea by the proliferation of antiship missiles and mines. But buying a new type of aircraft is unnecessary to solve this problem. The stealthy F-117 Nighthawk could be “navalized” to operate off carrier decks and provide a long-range attack capability until the Navy version of the JSF is fielded. Although the F-18E/F has already begun full production, it should be terminated.

Even President Bush has expressed skepticism about buying three new tactical fighters. “I’m not sure we can afford all three,” he has said. “Maybe we can, but if not, let’s pick the best one, and the one that fits into our strategy.” The three programs combined will cost $360 billion at a time when air bases and aircraft carriers are becoming more vulnerable to enemy missiles. The less mature JSF program should be retained because the tri-service U.S. tactical fighter fleet will eventually need to be updated with more affordable, cost-effective aircraft and oriented more toward the ground attack mission. The JSF is a much better buy for the money than the marginal improvements provided by the excessively expensive F-18-E/F. Some of the savings from canceling the F-22 and the F-18E/F fighters should be used to start R&D on a new heavy bomber needed to launch heavy payloads over longer ranges from more secure, remote air bases.

V-22 Osprey Tiltrotor Aircraft. The Osprey is a fixed-wing transport aircraft that is designed to carry 24 Marines or their light equipment far inland from ships off the coast during an amphibious assault. The plane can tilt its propellers to take off and land like a helicopter. It flies faster and has a greater range than helicopters. However, unlike the slower, heavier CH-53 helicopter, the aircraft cannot carry heavy weapons or large quantities of critical supplies that would be needed early in a battle. Thus, even if the V-22 survives and successfully transports Marines inland into enemy territory, they will be highly vulnerable until their heavy equipment arrives aboard the CH-53 or they link up with heavier U.S. forces. The insertion of lightly armed forces by air, either by parachute or helicopter, into enemy territory has always been dangerous. In short, even with the V-22, such an insertion is only as good as its weakest link: the CH-53.

Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester during the Clinton administration, reported that the aircraft was not operationally suitable because of its marginal reliability and excessive maintenance and logistics requirements. Allegations that officials of the Marine Corps may have tried to falsify maintenance records to cover up those problems, added to recent crashes of the aircraft (at least one caused by a poorly designed hydraulic system), have placed the program in political jeopardy.

But the biggest problem may not be its safety, reliability, or maintainability; it is cost. Like the F-22 and F-18E/F fighter aircraft, the V-22 is expensive. At about $80 million per plane ($38 billion for 458 aircraft), it is several times as costly as a helicopter. It has already cost $15 billion more than was initially estimated and is 10 years behind schedule. When he was defense secretary during the administration of George H. W. Bush, Dick Cheney twice failed in his attempts to kill the program.

The Marine Corps plans to buy the Osprey at the same time that it is also purchasing the short takeoff and landing version of the JSF to replace the AV-8B and F/A-18C/D tactical fighters. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the peak annual combined spending on the Osprey and the JSF would be about four times the current aircraft budget for Marine Corps combat aircraft. This affordability problem is a microcosm of the problem faced by the Pentagon: too many weapons for the money available.

The Osprey should be terminated before entering full production. Instead, more of the cheaper CH-53s, which carry more troops than the V-22, or Army Black Hawk helicopters could be purchased. The small number of Ospreys already purchased could be used for long-range missions that require no heavy equipment, such as search and rescue and special operations.

Recently, in an ominous sign that Bush’s defense transformation agenda may be snuffed out by vested interests, the administration decided to keep producing the Osprey at low rates until the Pentagon can figure out how to redesign it and eliminate the bugs; a process that Coyle says could take two to three years.

Comanche Scout Light Attack Helicopter. The Army originally designed the Comanche, which costs about $33 million each (a $43 billion program that buys 1,292 helicopters), to hunt Soviet tanks on the central plains of Europe. With that mission defunct, the Army bureaucracy now sees it becoming the “quarterback of the digital battlefield.” This implies that the helicopter would be used to spot the enemy and direct attacking U.S. forces to the location. Yet in the Gulf War, heavy Apache helicopter gun ships operated without smaller scout helicopters

Candidates for the chopping block include the F-22 and F-18E/F aircraft, the V-22 Osprey, and the DD-21 destroyer.

The Army is currently trying to transform its units into a digital force. But it cannot afford to buy all of the electronics and other gear needed to accomplish that goal while also purchasing the Comanche and the Crusader mobile artillery piece (see below). If the Army believes that more attack helicopters are needed, it could buy the light attack version of the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter (the Kiowa Warrior), which has a lower unit cost than the expensive Comanche.

Crusader Mobile Artillery Piece. Transformation is supposed to make the Army lighter. Yet the Crusader is a heavy artillery gun on a mobile tanklike chassis. Even though the Army put the Crusader on a diet, the fully loaded system could still weigh 80 tons (with its supply vehicle). And why pay at least $23 million each for a weapon that is out of step with the Army’s changing direction? The Crusader should be cancelled to generate savings for the digital force as well as to begin an R&D program for a lighter mobile artillery piece. If the Army believes that the existing mobile artillery piece–the Paladin–has an insufficient gun, the tube could be replaced with a larger one. The upgraded system could serve as an interim measure until the R&D program bore fruit.

DD-21 Destroyer. The DD-21 class destroyer is being optimized for attacking land targets. Yet unlike the multimission (anti-air, antisurface, antisubmarine, and land attack) DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently in production, the DD-21 will lack the sophisticated Aegis air defense system. Because surface ships are extremely vulnerable to attack from enemy aircraft, the DD-21 will be reliant on air defense provided by other ships. In other words, unlike the DDG-51, the DD-21 will not be able to operate independently.

The DD-21 is not even needed for the land attack mission. It will have 120 vertical launch system (VLS) cells to launch land attack missiles and two 155-millimeter guns to fire guided rocket-assisted shells. But according to Rear Admiral Joseph Sestak in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy already has 8,000 tubes (VLS cells and submarine torpedo tubes) capable of launching land attack missiles. Indeed, the U.S. military already has overkill in the strike mission area, because of each service’s desire to play a role in the glamorous mission of striking land targets deep in enemy territory. The Navy has Tomahawk land attack missiles (which are launched from the 8,000 tubes) and carrier-based tactical strike aircraft; the Air Force has F-15E and F-16 tactical fighter aircraft and B-2, B-1, and B-52 bombers; the Army has the long-range ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System); and the Marine Corps has the F-18C/D (which is capable of strike missions).

Because weapons systems are developed within the military services, no defense-wide review of strike assets has been undertaken to prune some of this redundant capability. Instead, the services are planning to pile up ever more strike assets; buying the DD-21 in addition to the existing 8,000 launch tubes is just one example. Even if the Navy had a legitimate need for more VLS cells, it would be more cost-effective to add more of them to DDG-51 ships or to refit four retiring Trident-class ballistic missile submarines to house them rather than to build a new class of destroyers.

Although the DD-21 has guns and launch cells for missiles, the ship is optimized for the strike mission rather than for the more urgently needed surface-fire support mission. After the decommissioning of the Navy’s battleships, with their turrets of 16-inch guns, the Marines are in desperate need of gunfire support during amphibious assaults. The high-volume suppressive fire of ship guns keeps the enemy in their foxholes as the Marines are coming ashore. Yet the Navy now has only anemic five-inch guns in the fleet to provide such support. Each DD-21 would have only two 155- millimeter (approximately six-inch) guns. Instead of expensive DD-21s that are primarily designed to launch additional and unneeded land attack missiles, the Navy should buy inexpensive platforms (maybe even barges) with heavy guns on them. Such a vessel might even be able to carry out the strike mission more cheaply than ships with VLS launchers. The guided rocket-assisted projectiles being developed by the Navy to fire from naval guns cost only $35,000 to $60,000 apiece; Tomahawk missiles cost almost $1 million each. Targets ashore might be hit much more cheaply using precision artillery shells rather than land-attack missiles.

Finally, the DD-21 is expensive now, and the cost is likely to grow. The Navy plans to spend $25 billion on 32 destroyers or about $780 million apiece. When the Navy bought the DDG-51 destroyer, it was billed as a cheap version of the CG-47 Ticonderoga-class cruiser. Both ships ended up costing about $1 billion apiece. With the cost growth and costly design changes normally found in defense programs, each DD-21 will also probably end up costing $1 billion–a staggering sum to pay for a ship optimized only for land attack. If the Navy is going to pay that much money, it should buy upgraded versions of the multimission DDG-51, especially during a time of uncertain threat. In sum, the Navy should terminate the DD-21’s development program and continue building and upgrading DDG-51s.

Virginia-Class Submarine. With the demise of the Soviet submarine force since the early 1990s, a new rationale has been developed to justify a robust U.S. submarine fleet. According to a 1999 study by the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and others, by 2015, between 55 and 68 attack submarines (up from 55 in the current fleet) will be needed to collect intelligence; by 2025, between 62 and 76 subs will be needed. The BUR, completed in 1993 shortly after the Cold War ended, cited a need for 55 submarines to carry out peacetime missions, presumably including intelligence collection. The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review cut that requirement to 50 without much comment. Why have intelligence collection requirements suddenly jumped when the overall threat to U.S. security has dramatically decreased?

According to Rear Admiral Malcolm Fages, the Navy’s director of Submarine Warfare, the operating areas for attack submarines and the number of nations targeted for intelligence collection have both expanded since the Cold War’s end. In short, to justify more submarines, the military is paying more attention to small countries worldwide. But even if there is a need to spy on more and more small countries in a relatively benign threat environment (a dubious proposition), a submarine is an expensive way to do so. For the $65.2 billion cost of building 30 Virginia-class submarines, the United States could buy many spy satellites and unmanned and manned reconnaissance aircraft. Moreover, those assets, unlike submarines, are not limited to collecting intelligence in coastal areas.

The Navy is unlikely to ever reach its grandiose goals for the submarine fleet. In fact, at the exorbitant cost of $2.2 billion per Virginia-class submarine, the Navy currently can afford to produce only one ship per year. But even one ship per year exceeds the Navy’s needs. To maintain the current 55-sub force, the Navy does not need to build any boats until later in the decade. With the demise of the major threat that U.S. nuclear attack submarines were built to counter, the Navy could reduce its force to 25 boats: approximately the number needed to fight one regional war. That would further push back the date when new submarines need to be produced.

The added requirement identified by the 1999 JCS staff study–18 Virginia-class submarines by 2015 to counter the “technologically pacing threat”–is incredible given the decrepit state of the Russian submarine fleet. Although Russia has new submarine designs, its economic woes will allow little if any production. Even if Russia does build a few new boats and even if the Virginia-class is truncated, the United States will have the best submarine fleet in the world for the foreseeable future. The three Seawolf-class submarines, the few Virginia-class boats already funded, and numerous 688I Los Angeles-class ships (the best in the world if the two new U.S. classes are excluded) cannot be matched by any nation, including Russia.

Therefore, the production of Virginia-class submarines can be terminated after the fourth submarine is built. The military could preserve the submarine industrial base by using some of the savings to design a submarine that could be produced in the next decade. In addition, the Navy’s public shipyards should be closed and all of their maintenance and overhaul work be transferred to the private sector. Also, the Navy should allow Electric Boat, one of two private submarine builders, to cease operation. Newport News Shipbuilding, a much larger shipyard with lower labor costs, can produce all the submarines the Navy will ever need, even if surge production were required for a national emergency, and unlike Electric Boat, it can shift its workforce efficiently between submarines and aircraft carriers as needed.

New priorities

Some systems are not glamorous and receive too little emphasis and funding from the military services. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are available now and unmanned aircraft will be in the not too distant future. Both of those aircraft could perform dangerous intelligence gathering and strike missions without putting pilots’ lives at risk. But the Air Force and Navy, where pilots are king, are predictably unenthusiastic about such systems.

Meanwhile, the Air Force, controlled by fighter generals, is spending so much money on two fighter programs that it has no money for a new heavy bomber. R&D for a new bomber is not scheduled to begin until 2013; deployment is slated for 2034, when current B-52s will be more than 80 years old. An immediate R&D program is needed to develop a reasonably priced bomber that would be used to economically launch large quantities of long-range precision munitions without relying on vulnerable bases close to the front. Merely building more B-2s at a whopping $2 billion per aircraft is not the answer.

One of the Navy’s critical, albeit unglamorous, responsibilities is to clear mines before the Marines can conduct an amphibious assault or Army forces in sealift ships can disembark in a foreign port. The Navy would rather use its money to build warships than to clear coastal mines. Despite the wakeup call delivered by the canceled amphibious assault in the Gulf War and the Navy’s ensuing rhetoric about the need to emphasize programs to counter mines, the service still remains stingy with funding for R&D and procurement of equipment to find and neutralize mines.

Also important are chemical, biological, and cruise missile defenses for U.S. forces. The military still has trouble operating when the battlefield is contaminated with biological and chemical agents. More R&D is needed in systems for detection, decontamination, and personal protection. Meanwhile, the military is placing too much emphasis on defending U.S. forces against ballistic missiles, when potential adversaries are far more likely to buy the cheaper and more accurate cruise missiles. Insufficient effort has been made to protect U.S. air and ground forces from attacks using these weapons.

Political obstacles to reform

On the campaign trail, candidate Bush pledged to skip a generation of technology, but was vague about which current weapons programs he would terminate. The obfuscation was necessary because he wanted to win votes in congressional districts and states that produce weapon systems, which are spread widely throughout the country. Instead of buying parts, components, and subsystems from the subcontractor with the best quality for the price, defense contractors are encouraged by the political nature of the defense business to spread contracts around the country to maximize the number of votes in Congress for the particular weapons program. Distributing benefits among far-flung political constituencies makes terminating a weapons program extremely difficult once it reaches the advanced stages of R&D (when big money starts flowing to the districts and states). Thus, the president will be required to expend large amounts of political capital to get Congress to agree to terminate such programs. Members of Congress will form “iron triangles” with defense industries that produce the hardware and the military bureaucracies that want to buy it at any cost (to the taxpayers). In short, if President Bush does attempt to transform the Pentagon, he will face fierce opposition from entrenched vested interests.

Much of the Bush administration’s rhetoric on reforming the Pentagon has been promising. Whether he is willing to actually incur the political costs of canceling mature weapon systems, however, is still in doubt. If he, for symbolic purposes, attempts to terminate meritorious programs such as the JSF in their early stages when they can be more easily axed, then his determination to effect reform is in doubt. But if he tries to cancel unneeded programs that are mature, such as the F-22 or the V-22, his political courage cannot be questioned. Hopefully, Bush is serious about making more than cosmetic changes in the DOD’s program and will use his political capital to beat back the forces of inertia in Congress and the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. If so, the president could act in the taxpayer’s interest while at the same time enhancing U.S. security.

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Cite this Article

Eland, Ivan. “Bush Versus the Defense Establishment?” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 4 (Summer 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 4, Summer 2001