The Pentagon Goes Shopping, Clips Wrong Coupons

The English-speaking peoples have maintained their position in the world for more than two centuries, first by controlling the seas and then -- since World War II -- by dominating the air. From the HMS Agamemnon to the Joint Strike Fighter, we have been wise enough (and sometimes just lucky enough) to posses the foresight to design the most advanced weapons systems, the will and wealth to build them in sufficient numbers, and the science and manufacturing bases to accomplish it all. But are we about to throw away our advantages in a paroxysm of parsimonious pique?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has laid out the Pentagon's new spending priorities, along with a new procurement process. Supposedly an improvement over our current system, "let's wait and see" might be the best attitude for now. Although, in all fairness, sending out a few supply sergeants with giant expense accounts to Dick's Sporting Goods during the big fall sale would be an improvement on how the Pentagon usually buys things for the troops.

Overall, the new priorities look right. The New York Times reports that the Air Force and Navy won't be losing any more personnel, despite earlier planned cuts. (Although with the Air Force undergoing a virtual reduction in force (RIF) and the Navy not receiving enough ships, it's hard to see what all those extra sailors and airmen will do.) The B-3 bomber is on hold, the Army's Future Combat Systems is facing significant cuts, the president won't receive a new fleet of Marine helicopters dreamed up for Cold War contingencies, and the Pentagon won't receive a fleet of new communications satellites. These cuts all seem reasonable and prudent, especially given Washington's newfound thrift (there's acid dripping from that last word, fyi).

That's the good news. The rest is either bad or mixed.

President Obama has confessed to being hostile to missile defense. This, even though Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) uses the only "weapons" in the world that can never be used to kill other human beings. So the cuts there come as no surprise, no matter how stupid or shortsighted they may be. Sadly, what we have here is a situation where the Pentagon will have to learn how to do more with less in what might be the world's most technologically demanding field.

The Navy and Air Force plans, however, are almost as worrisome. The Air Force's procurement of F-22A Raptor fighters will be capped at 187 jets. Total. Ever. The Navy's shipbuilding plans have been scuttled -- sort of. President Ronald Reagan's dream of a 600-ship Navy died with the Cold War. Our 200-ship Navy is aging faster than Reagan's fleet did, and the Navy can't even decide what ships to build next, due almost entirely to bad planning at the Pentagon and low-balling by defense contractors. Gates is trying to solve these problems with his changes in the Pentagon's purchasing system -- plans that consist mostly of hiring a bunch of civil servants who can never be fired. Good luck with that. Instead, we need more ships with smaller crews. In a renewed age of piracy, what counts most is global presence. Gates barely addresses the problem of how we're supposed to maintain that presence with an even smaller navy of multi-billion dollar stealth cruisers.

The Air Force has the opposite problem. It has jets to build but won't get enough of them. As things stand now, after the Air Force gets 187 Raptors to replace 483 F-15C Eagles, it won't receive another newly-manned, purely-air superiority jet, ever. We could build an "extra" 100 Raptors -- assuming a flyaway price of $130-$150 million per jet --  for less money than we've throw into the pit known as General Motors to protect hidebound jobs at plants not worth saving. Even at a reduced build rate of 12-15 jets per year, valuable production skills and irreplaceable production lines could be kept for years. And don't forget, there is no restarting those production lines once they're shut down. When we stop building Raptors, we're committed to never building them again, no matter what contingency may arise. If we lose a quarter of them in a Straits war with China or half of them to some new, unforeseen technology or disaster? It won't matter; the store is closed.

Our land forces represent only part of what needs to be a six-sided defensive posture: dominance on land, in air and space, at sea, in nuclear deterrence, intelligence and communications, and in ballistic missile defense. The Gates plan smartly addresses two of these, virtually ignores our aging nuclear arsenal, and shortchanges the Navy and Air Force -- albeit in different ways.

Given the current political climate, the Gates plan is probably about as good as it's going to get. The White House will spread around billions with virtually no oversight to protect United Auto Workers (UAW) jobs and its pals on Wall Street. But where we actually do have vital technologies to nurture, vital jobs and skills to keep, and -- oh, yeah -- a nation to defend, mostly we'll have to learn to make do. All this in an age of trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.

It would be unfair not to mention the best part of the Gates plan, what military expert Col. Austin Bay calls "the importance of perseverance in war -- the weapon of spine, determination, and will." Time and again, the American people have shown more determination than their leaders, and we might be in one of those times again. Through luck and design, we've maintained our place in the world. Right now our design looks a little lopsided. Let's hope our luck holds out -- and our determination, too.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My wife is an employee of Lockheed-Martin, builders of the F-22 and some ships the Navy doesn't need and can't afford. However, her program is in no way connected to the F-22 or shipbuilding, and she enjoys solid job security, even if peace breaks out tomorrow.