April 08, 2009

Wednesday Budget Opinionating

Well, it's a good thing this blog doesn't delve into the murky waters of Israel and Palestine. Otherwise, I might have to expend time and energy responding to this. Instead, I get to digest the staff editorials from the New York Times and the Washington Post on the new defense budget. First, the Times echoed Winslow Wheeler at ForeignPolicy.com in arguing that there is nothing really revolutionary in this new budget. To have been considered revolutionary, it would have had to have gone a lot farther than it did:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made a credible effort to bring new discipline and focus to military spending after the unrestrained, inchoate years of the Bush administration. He has made tougher choices than his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, and shifted billions of dollars from complex systems of little use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to weapons needed right now by troops fighting today’s wars.

The only problem is that he did not go far enough.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, wishes Secretary Gates the best and suggests the Congress should do what is best for the national interests and fall in line:

The result will almost certainly be a pitched battle with defense contractors and their clients in Congress, who include as many Democrats as Republicans. Mr. Gates took the unusual step of laying out his reforms as proposals to President Obama, which may deflect some of the heat from the White House. Mr. Obama ought to back his veteran and straight-shooting defense chief. Most of what Mr. Gates proposes is sensible, long overdue -- and necessary to prevent military spending from spinning out of control.

For years Congress and the Pentagon have known that the armed services were developing and buying too many weapon systems of too little relevance to the wars the country is fighting or is likely to fight. Thanks to the skill of defense companies in distributing jobs and campaign contributions through many congressional districts, the problem has been ignored.

Two noted hawks over at AEI, meanwhile, are mounting a lusty defense for every weapons system under the sun -- from the F-22 to the FCS -- on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. Donnelly and Schmitt go weapon-by-weapon and explain the advantages offered by each on the battlefield. But c'mon, fellas, no one has ever argued that these weapons systems would not be nice to have. Hell, in an environment with zero scarcity, go ahead and buy as many F-22s as Lockheed Martin wants us to buy. But it makes little sense to buy not one but two new lines of fighter-interceptors. Donnelly and Schmitt never address the fact that this is a BUDGET. And budgets are designed to control spending as much as enable it. If we lived in an environment in which money grew on trees, sure, we should buy all of these weapons systems. All of them have their advantages. But we don't have the money required to buy everything under the sun -- the authors don't discuss the financial crisis, of course -- and so Donnelly and Schmitt further the illusion that national defense should not be bound by fiscal restraint.

Second, you know what else Donnelly and Schmitt don't mention? How screwed up the acquisitions process is. Note that Secretary Gates did not just cast doubt on the war-fighting capability of the FCS vehciles. He also went out of his way to sharply criticize the contract itself.

Further, I am troubled by the terms of the current contract, particularly its very unattractive fee structure that gives the government little leverage to promote cost efficiency. Because the vehicle part of the FCS program is currently estimated to cost over $87 billion, I believe we must have more confidence in the program strategy, requirements, and maturity of the technologies before proceeding further.

Acquisition reform has bipartisan support. Donnelly and Schmitt, though, play see-no-evil, hear-no-evil because mentioning that the acquisition process might be flawed harms their argument. Better to pretend all these weapons systems were born of immaculate conception.(Note: The headline of their op-ed was the despicable "Obama and Gates Gut the Military." But I am guessing this headline was written by some twerp of a sub-editor and not by the authors themselves. Donnelly and Schmitt did not write anything so ugly in their op-ed. The flaw in their argument, rather, was what they left unsaid and not what they said.)

One more thing: I have not discussed other sections of the budget on this blog -- and for good reason; this blog covers defense issues -- but Donnelly and Schmitt as well as some of the readers are asking why defense gets cut but all other spending gets expanded. It's a fair question. I think there are a lot of arguments for why this is the case. Here are three:

  1. The problems with weapons acquisition are serious long-term problems that simply must be addressed regardless of what's going on in the economy.
  2. Secretary Gates has been expressing his displeasure for quite some time that the weapons in the acquisition pipeline were not reflecting the needs and lessons of counterinsurgency and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates mentioned this again on Monday. So if the weapons in the pipeline did reflect the wars we are fighting, perhaps they would not have been cut.
  3. If you were to ask an Obama Treasury official why we're in this economic mess, one answer you might get is the rising costs of health care facing both individuals and businesses. So it makes sense to increase government spending on health care -- or to provide universal health care -- if that means reducing the costs of health care for businesses and individuals.

It's not all looking bad for the president on the op-ed page of the Journal, though. The staff editorial, for example, had high praise for his Iraq policies.