Should we cut missile defense to buy better body armor for our troops?
Fred Kaplan has an interesting piece in Slate about places where we could excise a little money from the burgeoning American defense budget. As the largest discretionary item in the federal budget, defense will swallow nearly $400 billion in FY2004, and considerably more when you factor in supplemental appropriations for Iraq and the war on terrorism. Kaplan suggests cutting a few weapons programs which have not cut the mustard:
The $87 billion supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan is fairly straightforward: $32.3 billion for operations and maintenance, $18.5 billion for personnel, $1.9 billion for equipment, $5 billion for security, $15 billion for infrastructure, and so on. It's a bookkeeping calculation: If you want to continue the mission, that's what it costs; if you want to spend less, you have to downgrade the mission.Analysis: The real problem with weapons programs it that their cost tends to balloon as they age. Retired Pentagon analyst Franklin "Chuck" Spinney has done some brilliant work (see this data too) investigating weapons programs over the past 30 years, and his work indicates that every major weapons program winds up costing much more than we thought when we bought it. The reasons are simple. Defense contractors push a lot of their costs to the back end so that they can get the Pentagon to buy in when a project looks cheap. As the costs balloon, the contractors can file a claim for the costs, usually based on some sort of constructive change in the contract. The result is that large procurement programs have a deceptively small cost in the short-term, and a larger cost in the long-term, and an overall cost that's much higher than anticipated.
But there's plenty more in the military budget that does not have the slightest connection to any clear and present (or even murky and distant) danger.
When Congress passed the military budget last spring, nobody had any idea that "postwar" difficulties would boost it by $87 billion—more than one-fifth of its original, already hefty size. Nor did anyone project that the federal deficit would meanwhile expand to nearly half a trillion dollars. When your kid's in the hospital, your roof is leaking, and your salary's just been cut, you should probably put off plans to build a pool or buy a plasma-screen television. The military budget is in a similar state, and it only makes sense to reopen the books, set priorities, and slash those programs that can safely be deferred.
Clearly, we need some (or most) of these programs to field the military that fought so decisively in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. But the tough part is finding the right mix of programs, and balancing that against expenditures for personnel and current operations. I find it quite telling that the President's $87 billion request for Iraq includes a substantial purchase of body armor for American soldiers. My reporting indicates this will go to purchase individual sets of the newest body armor for all soldiers who will rotate through Iraq, and eventually for the entire Army and Marine Corps. I think this is a good thing, given the success this body armor had in Iraq. But I also think this body armor is something we should have bought a long time ago. The fact that we're buying it now tells me that we've spent far too much on long-term weapons procurement, and far too little on the short-term stuff our soldiers need.