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Friday, August 11, 2006

Let's Talk

Is it possible to have a rational conversation about this without having your patriotism and commitment to make America safe questioned?:

Unsafe at Any Price, by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker: A couple of weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee did something unusual: it actually said no to the Defense Department, trimming next year’s requested defense budget by a small amount. In practice, the cuts will likely be quashed by Congress; as Representative Christopher Shays said, ... “We’re at war, and I’m saying I’m not going to look military personnel in the eye and say I voted against their budget.” That’s understandable, but it helps explain why we have a defense budget that is over half a trillion dollars, forty per cent higher than it was in 2001. More than half the federal government’s discretionary spending goes to the military, and, while a sizable chunk goes toward the fight against terrorism and the Iraq war, too much has nothing to do with the demands of a post-9/11 world.

Over the past five years, we’ve heard a lot about the rise of what Donald Rumsfeld likes to call “asymmetric warfare,” and about the need to equip our military to fight “nontraditional” enemies. But a look at the defense budget shows that we’re building a new military while still paying for the old one. Money is going into Special Operations and intelligence, but far more is being spent on high-tech weapons systems designed to fight enemies (like the Soviet Union) that no longer exist—eighty billion dollars on attack submarines, three billion apiece on new destroyers, and hundreds of billions on two different new models of jet fighter. Advocates insist that we need to be able to contest any “near peer” rival. But the U.S. has no near-peers—or, indeed, any distant peers, as we now spend more on defense than the rest of the world put together.

Not only are we buying stuff we don’t need; we’re buying it badly. Astonishing budget overruns are routine. The Future Combat System, for instance—designed to remake the battlefield with robot vehicles and networked communications systems—began as a ninety-billion-dollar project, ... a recent Pentagon estimate suggests [it] will eventually cost three hundred billion dollars. Such inefficiency is seldom punished ... and is tolerated by regulators. Although government agencies have been required to produce an annual audit of their operations since the late nineties, the Defense Department’s operations are so confused that it has never been able to produce a successful audit. A few years ago, the Pentagon’s own Inspector General found that more than a trillion dollars in spending simply couldn’t be explained.

Of course, people have been decrying Pentagon waste and inefficiency for decades. But things have got significantly worse over the past five years, because Congress and the Bush Administration have thrown so much money at the Defense Department so fast. Studies of corporate behavior show that when companies are flush with cash they are more likely to make acquisitions that reduce their over-all value. The defense industry today, in fact, is much like Silicon Valley in the late nineties—when you give lots of money to an industry with no audits and no supervision, people lose discipline. They spend on bad ideas, gild every surface, and cheat. Is it really a surprise that billions of dollars meant for private contractors in Iraq seems to have been stolen? ...

The fiscal consequences of this are obviously dismal, but, even worse, there’s a strong possibility that giving the military a blank check is actually making us less safe. To begin with, ... often in recent times expensive weapons projects have been given priority over mundane improvements that would help the military here and now. Earlier this year, for instance, the Senate cut funding for night-vision goggles for soldiers, while adding money to buy three new V-22 Ospreys, a plane that Dick Cheney himself tried to get rid of when he was Secretary of Defense. Similarly, we might have been able to afford appropriate body armor for the troops, and plates for the Hummers in Baghdad, if we were building only one new model of multi-billion-dollar jet fighter, instead of two.

Even more strikingly, while we pour money into all these new projects we’re underfunding crucial homeland-security programs. In the past few months, Congress has eliminated six hundred and fifty million dollars for port security. ... And we cut nearly a hundred million from the requested budget for preventing the use of nuclear weapons in the U.S. Those cuts were considered necessary for budgetary reasons, yet the price of all of them together was less than a third of what it will cost to build a single destroyer. That ship will offer us not a whit of protection in the war on terror. But we can be sure it will keep the seas safe from the Soviet Navy.

I don't want to sacrifice security, quite the opposite, and the rise of China and other countries needs to be factored in as we look ahead and prepare for contingencies. That means maintaining traditional capabilities as well as being prepared to fight newer threats on terrorism and other fronts. But to do that we will need to spend our defense dollars wisely and efficiently, more so than we have in recent years, and recognize that budgetry realities require that choices be made on where the government spends its money.

    Posted by on Friday, August 11, 2006 at 10:32 AM in Economics, Policy, Politics, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (16)


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