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 July 2008 

Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.Difficult Choices Lie Ahead for The Nation’s Military Services

July 2008

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.

Much discussion — even hand wringing — is taking place among the military, Congress, and defense industry about where finite resources need to be placed.

At issue is the current, expensive conflict in Iraq on the one hand and on the other, equally demanding arenas, such as preparing for future conflicts, that are getting shortchanged in the process.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has touched on this subject in various speeches recently, which is an indication of how much tension still exists within the Pentagon about how to plan for the future without neglecting current needs.

“Much of what we are talking about is a matter of balancing risk: today’s demands versus tomorrow’s contingencies … As the world’s remaining superpower, we have to be able to dissuade, deter, and, if necessary, respond to challenges across the spectrum,” Gates said.

In a world of limited resources, the services surely will have to make difficult decisions in the months and years ahead.

The military services perform three basic functions — organize, train, and equip forces for combat operations. Our military forces bring technologically superior equipment to the battlefield and extremely well-trained warriors. In peacetime, the services concentrate on modernization and advancing the state of technology while constantly improving training.

In wartime, the pendulum must swing over to winning the current conflict. That means resources often have to be diverted from future modernization to pay for operations, maintenance, and to replace destroyed and damaged equipment.

The Defense Department is thus forced to do what military leaders say they never want to do: plan to fight the last — in this case the current — war.

The nation’s political leadership and citizens want the current conflict to be resolved as quickly as possible. If the services accumulate a backlog of modernization and recapitalization needs, the dilemma — win the current war or modernize for future conflicts — is painfully sharpened.

That seems to be where the services find themselves now.

The Army came into the current conflict as it was defining the requirements for its Future Combat Systems family of vehicles and high-tech weapons. It now finds that much of those resources are being pulled into the recapitalization of older war-torn equipment. The Navy’s ship recapitalization has fallen behind. Current ship production rates won’t get the Navy to its 313-ship goal unless it is willing to continue to age its fleet — driving up maintenance dollars and sacrificing operational availability.

The Air Force entered the current conflict with a huge backlog of modernization needs — antiquated tankers, inadequate airlift assets, a small and outdated bomber fleet, as well as aging fighters, transport aircraft and special operations aviation platforms, to name just a few. One statistic stands out. Thirty years ago, the average age of Air Force airplanes was eight years. Today it is 25 years. And maintenance requirements are on the increase.

Complicating this picture is the dysfunctional nature of the current budget process and the services’ dependence on huge supplemental appropriations which, as we have seen in recent weeks, get stalled on Capitol Hill by partisan gridlock.

The Defense Department is still waiting for Congress to approve a $165 billion war supplemental for fiscal year 2008. The legislation has been slowed by lawmakers who want to add billions of dollars in domestic programs and funds for a GI Bill.

The Defense Department therefore finds itself, as of mid-June, again with an overdue supplemental and the prospect of civilian layoffs and payroll shortfalls. There is no way to place this situation in a good light.

To make the Army’s July payroll, for example, the Pentagon had to reprogram $4 billion from Air Force and Navy personnel accounts to the Army. An additional $1.6 billion was reprogrammed for “operations and maintenance” expenses. It is extremely inefficient to be borrowing money from one service to finance another. The transfer of funds creates disruptions in many programs, and these programs almost never get fully reimbursed.

Military officials also worry that Congress will not be able to pass the Pentagon’s fiscal 2009 appropriations bill, which means that the government would be funded by a continuing resolution. “A continuing resolution is very restrictive in the things we can do,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen.

Most likely, after the current conflicts begin to wind down, there will first be a rush on the supplemental budgets, then on the baseline defense budgets.

We have to win the current war, but also can’t afford to ignore future modernization needs. This brings difficult choices surely, but we must pay attention to both. And we can’t do it on the cheap.

The nation and its political leadership have made the decision to go to war. We can do no less than to fully support the needs of this conflict in a timely manner. We owe that to the troops who are giving it their all. But we cannot afford to ignore the future either, and the concomitant demands of a different type of conflict.

This is doable. We have met the challenge in the past, and there is no reason we can’t do it again. At the height of the Cold War we devoted 6-7 percent of GDP to defense. A 4-5 percent contribution is modest by comparison.There is a responsibility and an obligation to fully resource today’s wars without “short-sheeting” either the current or a future generation of troops.

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