A missed decade at Pentagon

U.S. military procurement coffers were flush with cash in the post-9/11 decade, but the Pentagon missed an opportunity to replace the hardware still being used in the wars spawned by that infamous day.

On Sept. 10, 2001, the U.S. force was slated to feature hundreds of F-22 fighters, a Marine Corps water-skimming personnel carrier, advanced Army helicopters and new Navy ships. Ten years and two wars later, it features previously unneeded blast-resistant vehicles and aerial drones, as well as upgraded versions of existing combat platforms.

“In terms of acquisition, I think the post-9/11 decade was a missed opportunity for DOD,” said Todd Harrison, a senior defense budget analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Harrison said “at least $50 billion was spent on major acquisition programs that were ultimately canceled in development, not including programs that were cut short.”

Hawkish Rep. Randy ForbesJames (Randy) Randy ForbesToo much ‘can do,’ not enough candor Trump makes little headway filling out Pentagon jobs Why there's only one choice for Trump's Navy secretary MORE (R-Va.) acknowledged that the Pentagon squandered an opportunity to put further technological distance between its combat platforms and those being pursued by emerging potential foes like China’s People’s Liberation Army.

“While the Pentagon has skipped a generation of modernization, repeatedly failed to meet its own goals from shipbuilding to bolstering the aircraft carrier fleet, and is currently facing the masthead of a trillion dollars in defense cuts,” Forbes said in a statement, “the Chinese have met the goals of their sustained modernization program and are steadily increasing their own military budget.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Wednesday that the growth in defense spending since 9/11 “bought us a lot.” 

Mine-resistant combat vehicles like the MRAP and the more agile M-ATV, as well as enhanced body armor, “helped prevent casualties” in Iraq and Afghanistan, McKeon said.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said Wednesday that the spending increase “gave us the most professional [and] impressive military … in the history of the world.”

But the spending increase failed to produce enough next-generation hardware to keep the military ready in case China, Russia or Iran “get aggressive,” McKeon said. 

Not every pro-defense lawmaker sees it that way, though.

“Some of the things that were purchased in that time were just extraordinary advances, like all the UAVs,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D-Mich.) told The Hill on Wednesday, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), an Armed Services Committee member, said most of the programs terminated or truncated in the post-9/11 era were designed to fight the kinds of conventional wars that are unlikely in the 21st century. The Pentagon should be focusing on defending against and fighting wars in cyberspace, while thinking about leaning more on unmanned aircraft and less on traditional war planes like the F-35, Davis told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an interview published Monday.

The list of post-9/11 Pentagon procurement stumbles include systems that were meant to replace the fighter jets, combat vehicles and warships that generals and hawkish lawmakers say are now worn out after a decade fighting two major wars.

The Air Force’s prized F-22 fighter program, the Army’s ambitious Future Combat Systems effort, the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle  and Navy programs to develop new classes of destroyers and cruisers all were canned or truncated in the post-9/11 decade. The total number of F-35 fighters that the Pentagon will buy already has been trimmed. Defense sources say even more F-35s might be cut out of current plans in order to cut costs.

“Defense budgets have grown significantly in the past decade, primarily due to the demands of ongoing operations, readiness, and to make up for shortfalls created as a result of the 1990s defense cuts,” said former Senate staffer Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation. “But defense budget increases since 9/11 have” not gone toward “future preparedness or maintaining U.S. military supremacy.”

Rudy DeLeon, deputy Defense secretary during the Clinton administration, told lawmakers earlier this year that “the budgets of the last decade have really been budgets to support military forces in the field in combat — and so they have been high on consumables.”

The failure to deliver on next-generation programs doesn’t mean the military didn’t buy tons — literally — of new hardware during the post-9/11 spending spree. Blast-resistant vehicles, drone aircraft and helicopters top the list of war expenditures, and McKeon acknowledged Wednesday those items will be part of the services’ force structure for years.

In fact, military brass often echo Thornberry in describing a force that is showing signs of stress — but is as lethal as ever.

“Let me assure you upfront, your Army remains the most capable and decisive land force in the world,” Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli told a House panel just before the congressional recess. “It is better-trained and -equipped, and our young leaders are better-prepared than at any other time in history.”

While acknowledging the service must still buy new models and repair some of its war-worn equipment, Army leaders appear more concerned about dealing with the mental and physical tolls placed on its people — and their families — after a decade fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The notion put forth by some that the last 10 years have created a strained force that has no equipment is mostly a myth,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgeting in the Clinton White House.

The military services “made out like bandits, with bigger budgets and with supplemental [war] funding,” Adams said.

The Pentagon bought thousands of mine-resistant vehicles after insurgents in Iraq began using roadside bombs against U.S. and coalition forces, Adams said.

“They spent how much on those? Billions,” he said. “They’re not just going to park them.”

Even with a force composed of existing systems and those bought for the post-9/11 wars, Adams says, “no other military can touch us — and won’t be able to for some time.”