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Sunday, July 25, 2010

DEFICITS AND DEFENSE

     The Obama administration has just announced that the federal deficit for this year will exceed 1.4 trillion dollars. That would imply that all government expenditures are, or should be on the table for cuts. So far the Democrats in the Congress prefer to ignore these stratospheric numbers and talk about billions more in additional “stimulus” funds. Others return to the worn out “strategy” of “taxing the rich” i.e. a new estate tax or a return to the pre-Bush tax rates.

     Two different bipartisan commissions are studying ways to deal with the deficit/debt, however, their conclusions will be obvious. Increased revenue i.e. taxes, plus reductions in government spending, are the only tools available. Neither alone, is likely to have a significant impact. The problem is that in a state of recession, economists generally agree that tax increases are counterproductive. Thus serious spending reduction will have to be addressed in this Congress (unlikely) or the next. When that occurs, the largest areas of expenditure cannot be ignored. That makes the annual defense appropriation bill a likely target. Republicans will have to get on board. There is no reason that cuts in defense spending can’t be accomplished at the same time that the Congress continues to “support our troops” in Iraq and Afghanistan with separate funding. Secretary of Defense Gates has talked about cuts but his plan is to hold the overall defense budget “ increases” to 1% per year. Logically, there should be plenty of room in the defense budget for cuts. Everything from the military’s 161 golf courses world wide to big ticket Cold War era weapons systems need to be examined. The Pentagon periodically engages in long term strategic threat assessments and the weapons systems and force levels necessary to deal with those threats.

     Although two thirds of defense spending goes to personnel costs, and this may make such things as active duty benefits and veteran’s health care vulnerable, Gates and top military officials are reluctant to reduce the size of the force. That leaves weapons systems as the most likely targets. Gates opened to door to reduced spending priorities by limiting production of the Air Forces F-22 air superiority fighter to 187 from the initial order for 243. The cost per copy of this fighter ranges from $142.3 million to $196.3 depending on the inclusion of development and end of production costs. The F-22, with its stealth characteristics, high performance and enhanced target acquisition capabilities clearly is the worlds best air superiority fighter. However, it became operational in 2005 and has never seen combat despite our continuous engagement in two wars since then. The reason of course is the nature of the opposing forces; Iraq essentially had no air force and the war in Afghanistan is a counter insurgency effort. It was designed as an answer to Russian and Chinese aircraft with whom aerial combat is extremely unlikely but which might be made available to foreign air forces who are potential adversaries to the U.S. i.e. Iran. Secretary Gates believes that 187 F-22s should be sufficient to meet this threat. The existing inventory of F15E, F16 and F18 strike aircraft plus the new F-35 are better suited for the type of air to ground combat currently being conducted and for the foreseeable future.

     Also, the dynamics of international security continue to change, as the new START nuclear arms reduction treaty exemplifies. Thus the need for new ballistic missile submarines should be reviewed. The current inventory of eighteen SSBN Ohio class subs cost $2 billion per copy and have an annual operating cost of $50 million per sub. While the Navy is reluctant to give up any asset, these nuclear deterrence platforms may soon become weapons looking for a mission, even as the Navy prepares to spend millions of dollars unnecessarily retrofitting them to accommodate female personnel in the name of “fairness”.

      The nuclear deterrence requirements created by a nuclear armed Iran and North Korea can be met by land based and air launched weapons and by the fourteen existing SSBNs each carrying 24 multiple warhead (MIRV) missiles, (four have been modified to launch conventional guided missiles and cruise missiles and have been designated SSGNs). No new Ohio class SSBNs are contemplated but the next generation missile sub is already in the early design stage. The Future Follow-on SSBN-X is estimated to cost between 4 and 6 billion dollars each. The current, or next administration will have to decide if these extraordinarily expense subs can pass a cost/benefit evaluation.

     Cutting defense spending is political challenge as even liberal members of Congress who generally oppose military spending find their “ inner warrior” when it comes to closing bases or curtailing weapons systems manufactured in their districts or states. President Obama has recently announced that the 2011 defense budget, counting special appropriations for the wars in the Middle East, will be $719.2 billion. While this represents about 4.9 percent of GDP and is significantly less than the 6.0 percent expenditures of the Cold War period, the real numbers when considered in the context of a 1.4 trillion dollar federal deficit, are significant. The financial and political imperatives of deficit and debt reduction are likely to bring about significant changes in both military strategy and equipment in the next decade.

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