Defense Budget Dead On — Despite Hype

Defense Secretary (and occasional superhero) Robert M. Gates announced his fiscal 2010 priorities when he outlined his proposed budget last week.
There were few surprises. Gates deviated little from past statements, service fears, and fact-based speculation (oh, and common sense) that have dominated this most-anticipated defense announcement (well, second to the eagerly awaited debut of the commander in chief’s puppy).
Ah, but don’t be misled by the wailing and gnashing of teeth that have been evenly distributed between right and left. Gates’ $534 billion budget is … unremarkable. Some examples include:
The F-22 Raptor. This Air Force budget-buster whose price tag (sans research and development costs) hit $140 million per bird will cease production at 187 copies as expected. At the same time, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has gotten the green light. Lockheed’s loss (F-22) is Lockheed’s gain (F-35).
Future Combat Systems (FCS). We love the Army and its efforts to modernize, but the whole 18+1+1 spiel (downgraded to 14 systems with the ghosts of Crusader and Comanche always looming) will take some hits. It is losing a number of vehicles. This is an opportunity for the Army, and its FCS (modernization, please!) gods are in the huddle. FCS has long been a hard sell and the Army failed to put this mega program in terms even the biggest hoo-ah monster could understand. Gates has been clear he wants to continue Army modernization — and we believe him. The Army should, too.
Presidential Helicopter (VH-71). After costs spiraled out of control, Lockheed’s latest helo for the Corps is history, but there will be a new Marine One — just at a more reasonable cost.
Missile Defense. Arguing missile defense is like fighting the Civil War. There is no middle ground on this issue, though Gates may have found one: cuts could have been much deeper. Missile defense is a big-ticket item that some lawmakers have had in their crosshairs for years. On the flip side, big, expensive programs tend to employ a lot of people — people who vote. So this might not be the last we’ve heard on this topic. (The South shall rise again?)
DDG-1000. Someone finally has put the Zumwalt and the Navy out of their collective misery. It could be called a mercy killing. The boys in blue have been hobbled by cost overruns in their quest for the stealth destroyer. (Stealth boats. Invisible clothes. We see a connection.) DDG-1000’s cost now exceeds $3 billion per vessel, (possibly closer to $6 billion if penalties from the cancellation kick in). But that’s water over the superstructure. Man the rails! Ding, ding, ding, ding; Uncle Elmo is departing.
Carriers. Some see the Navy losing a carrier (bilges half full). We see it as gaining an opportunity (bilges half empty). Again, our Boys in Blue seem to want to define/redefine themselves. Do they want a fleet that is faster and more maneuverable like their super-sized jet ski the littoral combat ship? If so, they may not need as many carrier battle groups. If they later find carriers are crucial, then build more. Sure, it puts them a few years behind, but this decision should free them to think differently, as uncomfortable as the loss of a carrier may be.
No announcement (or blog entry) is without its critics. Some charge Gates is getting ahead of the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review when these matters would be decided. Others say the services are being penalized for the money needed to pay for the current operations. But opinions on Dr. Gates’ preferences may matter little. Ultimately these decisions lie with lawmakers and the Fat Lady resides on Capitol Hill.

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