This article was originally published in the Boston Globe.
Congress is getting ready to mark up and vote on the Obama administration’s supplemental bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers are sure to attempt to use the supplemental to breathe new life into some outmoded, overpriced, and unneeded weapons programs that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed either eliminating or completing in the 2010 base defense budget, arguing that these programs should continue on the basis that they are vital to U.S. national security interests.
In fact, the supplemental request submitted to Congress last month already includes funding for one such unneeded program: four additional F-22 Raptors. In a letter to President Barack Obama, the entire Connecticut delegation urged the continuation of the F-22 program in order to "meet critical national security needs." Yet the F-22, a fighter program that was originally designed to defeat Soviet fighter planes (which were never built), has no relevance to the wars we are in today and has never been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
But while the debate over whether or not to include the four additional F-22s may be over, military leaders must do their part to deny lawmakers the ability to argue that other unnecessary programs are worth sneaking into the supplemental because they are vital to our national security.
Gates’s budget proposal, the most significant overhaul of the Pentagon’s spending priorities since the end of the Cold War, is an opportunity to more adequately match capabilities to necessity. Among other needed moves, Gates’s plan would eliminate vehicles for the Army’s Future Combat Systems because they are highly vulnerable to the kinds of improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, Gates’s proposal would stop the purchase of a new presidential helicopter, reorient the Navy’s ship-building priorities, and cancel unproven missile defense systems.
But while the secretary’s proposal would eliminate these unnecessary programs, it would also maintain or increase funding for defense capabilities that are urgently needed by commanders on the ground. Most important, Gates’s plan would maintain funding for the growth in the ground forces to ease the disproportionate strain placed on them, increase the number of special-operations forces, and boost funding for needed capabilities such as helicopter pilots.
The proposal would also provide more funds for the purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles that are in high demand today and increase funding for the Air Force’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to maintain U.S. air superiority for the foreseeable future.
Since outlining his request at the Pentagon last month, Gates has embarked on an ambitious public relations campaign in support of his budget proposal. But his speeches before the Army, Navy, and Air War colleges have elicited little public support from military leaders themselves.
Given the fact that Gates’s budget plan is a response to the stated needs of ground commanders, it is surprising that leaders of the military services have not followed the lead of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz and publicly withdrawn support for unneeded weapons platforms.
Last month, in a surprising turnaround, Donley and Schwartz finally—if half-heartedly—ended the Air Force’s support for the continuation of the service’s pet project, the F-22, beyond the four already in the supplemental (some were calling for an additional 60). By stating that while, in an ideal world, the service would value having the added capability of additional F-22s, Donley and Schwartz said "the time has come to move on," and effectively gave lawmakers one less leg on which to stand when making the case to continue a program from a bygone era.
It is time for more military leaders to do the same. If nothing else, the refusal to endorse the continuation of unneeded weapons programs by the leadership of the military services would force lawmakers to admit what the inclusion of that platform in a supplemental bill is really all about: a jobs program. If that ends up being the case, let’s debate it on those terms.
Sean E. Duggan is a Research Associate for National Security at American Progress. Please see our National Security page for more recommendations on military spending and the defense budget.