Francis Fukuyama argued in his book The End of History and the Last Man that the end of the Cold War seemed to usher in the end of new ideologies and the triumph of western liberal democracy. With the necessity of fighting the wars we are in, with flat budgets planned for much the next five years, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates focused on lower costs and more flexible acquisition, analysts are increasingly concerned that we may be facing the effective end of acquisition, a period when few or no new major weapon systems are planned and bought.
One very experienced defense expert with time in the military, on the Hill and in industry said, "The question is will the balance move too far." That balance is the difficult one between our technological supremacy, force structure and troop training, and the capabilities that potential enemies might field. This source wonders how much closer to a fair fight the Obama administration and Gates will allow the country to move. "As a former infantryman, I hate fair fights," he said.
We need a military that can fight today's wars, not wars we might have to fight in 10 or 20 years, say Gates and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. After all, Gates put an end to the now-scorned "Cold War" weapons like the F-22 and the Manned Ground Vehicle, But the American way of war has traditionally required enormous amounts of equipment that can get to a distant theater relatively quickly. That means long-range air transports, fast cargo ships, airborne tankers, land systems that can be moved by air and sea, bombers that could penetrate enemy territory and fighters to protect the bombers and the troops on the ground.
"With science and technology spending going flat and the national fatigue for wars and defense spending, we could very well create a force with little or no power projection capability or one that is shaped due to budget considerations rather than what the last superpower ought to be thinking about -- deterrence," said one senior analyst who works with the Pentagon and the intelligence community.
The belt tightening began when the Office of Management and Budget told the Pentagon it could not longer fund system upgrades from contingency or operations funding contained in supplemental spending bills. The Obama administration pledged to fold operational funding into the regular budget. According to a source familiar with its deliberations, the Obama administration's defense transition team considered a restriction like this. This all came about because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had gone on long enough that the Pentagon should have a pretty good handle on just how much it will need to spend each year -- barring catastrophes -- they argued.
A substantial portion of the upgrades needed to restore and improve weapons came from those supplemental bills. Then came April 6, when Gates unleashed the greatest number of program terminations in modern memory, and certainly since the end of the Cold War. Gates, Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and other senior officials spoke with scorn of "exquisite" weapon systems, especially those that dragged on for decades, incurred huge costs and schedule increases and then didn't deliver the superb capabilities the services and the defense companies had pledged they would offer the country.
But the Defense Department is spending less and less on what is usually called its seed corn -- science and technology. In budget parlance, this is known as 6.1 money. Within the RDT&E budget, the administration if shifting funding away from early research and development activities, such as Applied Research and Technology Demonstration and toward later developmental activities such as Operational Systems Development," notes the most recent budget analysis by Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. At the same time, Harrison notes that procurement funding went up a real 4.6 percent over the previous year's budget. If you boil all that down, the Gates' Pentagon is spending more on programs already underway and less on new programs.
On top of that, Harrison notes that the budget is "weighted" toward the purchase of "next generation" weapons, not new versions of existing weapons (like the F-16 Block 50) or service life extensions as was done with the M1A2. These next-gen weapons are more expensive. "An approach that includes the purchase of some next generation weapon systems, but focuses more on the production of new current generation systems, upgrades of existing systems and selective reductions in the force structure might cost substantially less," Harrison argues.
In addition, all the analysts we spoke with expressed deep concern about the equipment the Army will buy and what shape it will take in the future. The analyst who works with the Pentagon and intelligence community also said that Gates or his replacement must concentrate on what shape the Army will take after Iraq and Afghanistan. Will it be built to fight the wars we are in now or will it be built to tackle coming threats, or will the administration try to build a varied force, something that the Army has traditionally resisted.
Another analyst points to the heavy US reliance on allies, as well as the crucial US capabilities on which they depend. "By and large, we want to insert force and withdraw it to effect a strategic result and to reinforce allies. As the only global power in the alliance of democracies, our unique contribution is to provide global tools aiding and abetting regional allies in achieving joint objectives. We should be focusing upon supporting greater convergence among air and naval systems and properly funding forces to support the post-Iraq transition, a transition in which air and naval forces will play the key role with conservative Arab states and Israelis; the deterrence of Iran and re-enforcement of Iraq within the Middle East is largely an air and naval effort," said Robbin Laird, a defense consultant who works in the US and Europe.