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Report: It wasn't 'hollow growth' after all

Chin up, you military services! You actually did pretty well for yourselves in the defense spending bonanza that followed the Sept. 11th attacks, according to a new report out Friday.

Forget all this talk about the "hollow growth" of the past decade, which has resulted in a military of about the same size that costs 40 percent more. According to the study by the Henry L. Stimson Center, the military services have made great progress in modernizing their forces for the present day, both in comparison to where they began and all the other militaries of the world.

Here's the high level summary, which blew into Washington like a clear mountain breeze after another week of teeth-gnashing and breast-beating and forehead-smiting:

Prevailing wisdom on defense spending in the past decade asserts that despite the large amount spent, we did not modernize our weapons systems. In reality, the military services did take advantage of increased procurement funding to modernize their forces, although not always as expected ...
  • The Army had its next-generation acquisition programs cancelled, but that freed resources - enhanced by significant supplemental war funding - to expand and upgrade its primary combat vehicles and supporting capabilities, giving it a fully modernized force.
  • The Air Force modernized its force by fielding the next-generation systems of the F-22 and C-17, and also introduced an entirely new capability - unmanned aircraft. The Air Force bought fewer fighters than it projected because it made a conscious choice to pursue high-end and expensive next-generation systems.
  • The Navy achieved the modernized force it projected at the start of the decade, and relied on the dramatic expansion of procurement funding to achieve that force.
There will always be debate over what forces and equipment our military should pursue, but we should not ignore significant advances. Over the last decade, we spent roughly $1 trillion on defense procurement and the military services used that funding, including that provided in the supplemental war funding, to modernize their forces. In the daily barrage of news about cost overruns and cancelled programs, we can overlook this accomplishment. But after reviewing what procurement funding bought in the past decade, it is clear the military successfully modernized its capabilities, especially in building on existing systems and incorporating those not even anticipated.
Whew! So everything's OK now! It's been nice covering the defense beat, but since DoD and the services have reached perfection, looks like there'll be nothing more for us poor hacks to write about.

Well -- wait a minute. Remember the Army's original goal for a "modernized" force? It was a corps-size battle in which little lightning bolts connected everything on the field, from Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, equipped with Land Warrior eyepieces and OICWS rifles; to beer keg-sized UAVs flying around; to 50 different kinds of manned and unmanned vehicles. The Air Force wanted its squadrons upon squadrons of F-22s to blot out the sun. The Navy was dreaming about fleets of 25,000-ton nuclear-powered CG(X) cruisers with Death Star turbolasers that could bounce off a mirror in space and vaporize a single bad guy standing in a crowded market without singeing the goatherd next to him. What happened to all that stuff?

The Stimson Center report is correct in that the military services bought a lot of hardware over the past decade, but there's a difference between just upgrading an old design and fielding the transformational capabilities for which the Pentagon once planned. Navy officials, for example, boast about the "efficiencies" they say they can get with a restarted run of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. But there's an equal case to be made that relying on a ship class for so long is an indictment, not a vindication. The Navy really tried to build 30 or more DDG 1000s, and it tried to get a CG(X), but it was just too hard, so the service had to default back to a design from the 1980s. So the Navy is building capable warships, yes, but the distinctions are important here.

The "modernized" Air Force has never fielded its F-22s in combat, even after leaders teed up that possibility before the Libya intervention. (Plus the jets have this problem with poisoning their pilots.) So decades-old F-15s, F-16s, B-1s and B-2s got to do the heavy lifting in this year's air war, and it appears the Air Force may have to upgrade some of its F-16s again as it waits for its make-or-break F-35As. Well, that's what the brass wanted, the Stimson report says: The generals decided to make their bed a smaller, more expensive force, and now they've got to sleep in it.

Meanwhile, the report's section on the Army is worth a close look. It presents the service's Bradley fighting vehicle modernization program as a smashing success:

In the past decade, the Army has modernized nearly its entire fleet of ground combat vehicles despite its original intent to pursue a much more limited modernization plan. It did so because of the unexpected bonuses from the supplemental war funding. The Abrams and Bradley programs each received more than $1B in both the FY07 and FY08 supplementals. Coupling that extra funding with a decade of procurement growth, the Army has now equipped its entire active force structure with the most modern variants of its basic vehicles.
All right -- but as we heard this week, the Army hasn't used the Bradley in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2008. It's poorly suited to today's battlefields. As Danger Room reports, the next Stryker brigade deploying to Afghanistan is not even taking its Strykers. And this "modernized" Army has a glut of heavy MRAP vehicles that, by all appearances, it can't wait to throw away. Instead it wants a brand new Ground Combat Vehicle, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and -- maybe -- an upgrade for its pre-war fleet of Humvees. Why buy all that new hardware if the existing fleet is so terrific? Meanwhile, it has been easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the Army to buy a new helicopter for the battlefield.

So yes, the military services have succeeded in buying a lot of hardware since Sept. 11, but that isn't the full story.

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