Op-Ed: Historically High Pentagon Spending Creates a Hollow Force

USS Ford nearing her launch at the HII Newport News shipyard (file image courtesy USN)

Published Aug 14, 2019 4:13 PM by Dan Grazier

In a recent Washington Post column, Robert J. Samuelson argues that the military-industrial complex isn’t bankrupting American taxpayers or taking funding from social programs. True, the Pentagon no longer accounts for a majority share of the federal budget. But when all defense spending is calculated, we spend nearly $220 billion more (adjusted for inflation) on the military today than we did at the height of World War II, when we had more than 12 million troops fighting around the globe.

Mr. Samuelson misses a much more important point about the consequences of historically high defense budgets: out-of-control Pentagon budgets produce a less effective military. Simply put, service leaders make bad purchasing choices when cost doesn’t seem like an issue. Both the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Ford-class aircraft carrier programs have incurred massive budget overruns and are far from meeting the promised performance standards used to sell them to a credulous Congress. The F-35 is nearly a decade behind schedule, and the costs to design and build the planned fleet have more than doubled since the program’s beginning in 2001. The USS Gerald R. Ford is still not operational due to problems with the technologies necessary to arm, launch, and recover aircraft.

The problems with the F-35, the Ford and most other marquee Pentagon programs result directly from lapses in discipline when money is not perceived as an obstacle. Traditionally, the services have attempted to add one major new technology into new programs. The Ford’s designers incorporated four: the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (known as EMALS), advanced arresting gear, dual band radar and advanced weapons elevators. Then, the Navy compounded the challenges with the Ford program by building the ship around these technologies before they were fully developed, creating a major source of cost and schedule overruns.

Had Congress held the Navy to a smaller budget for the program, the service would’ve had to adopt a simpler design, and the USS Ford would likely be on schedule for deployment.

I wrote an article last summer delving into the problems caused by the Pentagon’s lack of spending discipline. As a general rule, I wrote, “weapons should be of the simplest possible design while meeting the needs of their intended use.” That helps keep weapons costs down, so the services can afford to buy as many as they need. Plus, I pointed out, “every extra component added to a weapon system is one more potential failure point,” making them harder to maintain and more likely to be unavailable when they’re needed most.

Historically high Pentagon budgets aren’t a problem because they steal funds from other programs. They’re a problem because the force they produce is smaller and less effective than it should be.

Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) Center for Defense Information. This article appears courtesy of POGO and is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. It may be found in its original version here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.