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Fiscal restraint is en vogue and increasingly the cover many are using to push other agendas. Republicans spent a week in Tampa monitoring America’s mounting national debt at their recent convention. Democrats included a call for “tough” spending cuts, especially to the military, as part of their official party platform. The document indicates “outdated Cold War-era systems” should be favored for the chopping block.
It’s time to retire for good the phrase “Cold War-era weapons systems” and the thinking that this is what comprises the vast majority of Pentagon spending.
Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon said it best in a report on the subject last year:
Despite the claim of some defense budget cutters, few if any of the new systems can still be described as ‘Cold War legacy weapons.’ …There is no weapon today being justified on the grounds that it might be needed against a Soviet-like threat.
Many production lines building systems from a previous era are already slated to close, or are completing their final orders absent foreign military sales. Aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster III, C-130 Hercules, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-16 Fighting Falcon — platforms that have helped form the bulwarks of American air power — will cease production in a few short years. The F-22 Raptor fifth-generation fighter production line has already shut down.
The remaining recapitalization plans of the U.S. military are anemic. As O’Hanlon observes, “for the first time in the history of aviation, the U.S. does not have a manned aircraft program in the R&D [research and development] phase.”
Few stop to ask what consequences further cuts might have on the nation’s defense-industrial base. After all, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has observed, “Having the best defense industrial and technology base in the world is not a birthright.”
Since World War II, the United States has benefited from the skills of a robust aerospace, shipbuilding and defense manufacturing workforce. America’s Air Force and Navy operate the best fighter aircraft, long-range bombers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and submarines. While technology alone has not assured American military superiority, the defense industry has nevertheless been a potent enabler of American military might.
O’Hanlon called for greater consideration of “deep and significant challenges, arguably more so than perhaps ever before in its post-World War II history” facing this smaller, already-downsized industry.
This time, consolidation is not an attractive option — particularly for taxpayers.
Where there were once more than 30 prominent defense companies, there are now five (check out this eye-opening chart from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments for graphic evidence). On Thursday comes the news that European defence giants EADS and BAE Systems are talking about merging, which would create one of the globe’s largest aerospace company.
The few major programs now underway have served to boost the cost of what we end up buying. Shrinking competition further would only drive up the government’s tab, while the dollars dedicated to defense are supposedly heading in the opposite direction.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.
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