Unpredictable future, aging weapons demand modernization of US forces

The eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency were the triumph of that wisdom. Today, America’s military forces are the best in the world. This is due to the courage and skillful training of the men and women of our armed forces, but also because President Reagan’s defense investment that ensured those men and women went into combat with the best equipment in the world. That equipment is now creeping on three decades worth of wear and tear. To compound matters, we canceled approximately half of our military modernization programs after the Cold War. In the past decade, we shelved another 25 percent.

This is dangerous business.

The strain on our force is dire. Many of the same planes, ships and tanks that won the brushfire conflicts of the late ’80s and ’90s are still in use. The average age of a U.S. Air Force aircraft is 30 years. The last B-52 — the backbone of our strategic bomber force — rolled off the assembly line during the Cuban missile crisis. Our F-16 and F-15 fighter jets first flew in the 1970s. The M1A1 Abrams, our main battle tank, was procured by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when he served in the Ford administration.

Now President Obama seems to be going after the remaining quarter of our modernization programs.

This is a reckless approach. It is neither fiscally wise nor economically prudent to kick the modernization can down the road. By allowing our fighting vehicles to atrophy and by failing to adequately invest in basic research to hedge against tomorrow’s threats, we increase long-term costs and put our soldiers at risk. In my capacity as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, I will resist any penny-wise, pound-foolish attempt to play fiscal games with the defense budget.

Any disinterested observer of the budget understands this: It is not defense that is bankrupting America and it is not defense that is ballooning our deficit. While it is true that the costs for defense have risen in the last decade — to fight the terrorist threat against our homeland — spending as a portion of GDP is actually at an historic low.

I reject the notion that Defense must “do its part.” The Defense Department has slashed more than 20 major weapons programs in the past two years alone. In those same two years, President Obama has exploded domestic discretionary funding to record-setting levels. In 2009, entitlement spending increased by 20 percent. That was in a single fiscal year.

Yet, the fact remains that defense is already doing its part. Secretary Gates, the military services and my committee members are working to find efficiencies and savings within the Pentagon’s budget — so that we ensure every defense dollar is spent wisely and effectively.

Secretary Gates recently denounced calls to trim the defense budget further as “math, not strategy.” This is precisely right. 

Strategy should always guide the defense budget. It is unfortunate that there are some in this government who seek to do the opposite.

Some consider our military budget — the largest in the world — as a drain on the economy. The precise opposite is true. American armed forces are guardians of global prosperity. 

Consider the growth of the global commons, realms where commerce occurs. A century ago, the commons were limited to road and sea lanes. The Royal Navy adequately protected the latter, individual governments the former. Today these areas have multiplied to also include air, space and cyberspace. 

As advances in technology globalize commerce, instability in these dominions can have a significant, if not dangerous, impact on the U.S. economy. American forces hold the line in Korea, reassure allies concerned about the growing ambitions of the People’s Republic of China and a nuclear Iran, secure sea commerce against piracy and protect cyberspace from the destabilization. I consider our investment in a well-balanced military, adequate to ensure stability in all areas critical to our economy, an investment in American prosperity.

Two decades ago, it was conventional wisdom that if America became embroiled in war, it would be on the plains of Germany, not the deserts of Iraq. Today we are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. The wisdom here is constant. Conflict is unpredictable. Future threats are unseen.

Leading up Desert Storm, Gen. Colin Powell accurately noted that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” We should always craft our defense budget with this wisdom in mind, instead of simple arithmetic. America may be in jeopardy due to out-of-control spending and inflated debt. But that danger will multiply if we do not halt the slow atrophy of America’s armed forces.

McKeon serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.