Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates appears to wear two hats on defense spending. He has for several years been an adamant opponent of a larger defense budget. Just last week, however, Mr. Gates stated that the proposed fiscal year 2012 budget request of $553 billion represented the absolute minimum amount needed for our armed forces. If that’s the minimum, his statement raises an obvious question.
Given China’s rapid military modernization and expansion and the rising cost of maintaining our armed forces, what’s the adequate long-term funding level, rather than the minimum, needed to properly support our military?
China is rapidly expanding its military capabilities, including what U.S. Navy leaders call “area-denial capabilities” in the western Pacific. Of particular note is China’s growing fleet of advanced diesel-electric attack and nuclear missile submarines and its expanding arsenal of anti-ship missiles. Between 2004 and 2006 alone, China launched 16 submarines, while the U.S. launched three. In about five years, its fleet of modern subs - all concentrated in the western Pacific - will nearly equal our own.
China is also acquiring several types of advanced anti-ship missiles. Its land-based, ballistic anti-ship missiles, guided by satellite, have a range of about 930 miles. Some experts report that by 2020, China plans to extend their range to about 3,100 miles - more than halfway to Hawaii. Its sea-skimming, anti-ship cruise missiles have the ability to maneuver and defeat shipboard defensive systems and can be launched from subs, destroyers and some advanced fighters.
The question isn’t whether an American carrier battle group can fend off a few missiles, but one of detecting and defeating 30 to 40 missiles converging on our ships from multiple directions.
Beijing, in addition, is developing and fielding airborne warning-and-control aircraft, airborne tankers, advanced torpedoes, space-based satellite target-tracking and communications capabilities, and is designing a new class of destroyers. As Mr. Gates recently learned, China is also flight-testing a fifth-generation stealth fighter.
China’s military is not 10 feet tall, but it has shrewdly assessed the U.S. fleet’s vulnerabilities and is rapidly acquiring the means to exploit them - exactly how the United States, through its Competitive Strategies Initiative, responded to the Soviets during the Cold War.
In addition to the growing military power of China, our armed forces have profound unmet resource requirements. Today’s Navy is the smallest since 1917. Most of the Army’s ground combat vehicles must be rebuilt or replaced. Marine Corps aviation and sealift are perennially underfunded. The long-term budget outlook for the Air Force is a slow-motion train wreck. The average age of the service’s inventory of 5,500 planes is 25 years. Current plans call for flying our 50-year-old fleet of B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers until the mid-2030s. Across the services, manpower, readiness, missile defense, military construction, cybersecurity and bio-weapons threats, plus an inadequate budget for research, all adds to the bill.
It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that Adm. Mike Mullen, in his first speech in late 2007 as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for a decidedly higher annual defense budget.
Unfortunately, Adm. Mullen’s biggest opponent turned out to be Mr. Gates, who, for several months, publicly belittled military officials who supported higher defense spending as suffering from “next-war-itis,” which he glibly described as a preoccupation with future rather than current wars.
In the spring of 2008, the secretary would tolerate no further lobbying by the Joint Chiefs. When Adm. Mullen met with then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole in early May in response to her letter concerning the long-term implications of an inadequate defense budget, the chairman’s first sentence was, “Senator, how do I answer your letter without losing my job?” That summed up the Pentagon’s command climate.
The next month, Mr. Gates fired the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force for the service’s mishandling of its nuclear-components inventory. Neither man would dispute the point. Adm. Kirkland Donald’s report, which detailed these shortfalls, also served a second purpose: It provided the secretary with cover to dismiss both men for their increasingly effective advocacy on Capitol Hill for higher defense spending.
Mr. Gates may have had a change of heart. Regardless, what he considers the minimum allowable budget is the Obama administration’s ceiling. Therefore, if our services are to receive adequate funding, the Joint Chiefs of Staff must make the case themselves. They have a moral obligation - a “sacred trust,” as Gen. George Marshall, FDR’s Army chief of staff described it - to state their professional views candidly before Congress and the American people.
Lindsey Neas, a former Army officer, was the chief of staff for the Graham-Talent WMD Commission in 2009-2010. He served for 15 years as a military aide to five members of Congress on the Armed Services committees.