- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What nation’s Air Force is flying aircraft more than 50 years old? What nation’s Navy has the smallest fleet since before World War II? And what nation’s military transports are banned from the airspace of a South American country because they are notoriously unreliable? Most Americans would be shocked to learn the answer is none other than the United States.

For far too many years, our military has been trying to stretch dollars by repairing aging equipment. Can you imagine the public outcry if commercial airlines were flying 50-year-old planes? Clearly, this is unacceptable — especially to the brave men and women who defend our country. The least we can do is ensure they have the best equipment when in harm’s way and the best health care, housing and benefits upon their return.

Our projected defense spending falls short of meeting our military’s critical needs. That’s why I have introduced a resolution recommending that our nation commit no less than 4 percent of our gross domestic product to the annual defense budget, a measure supported by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. Today’s defense budget is at one of the lowest levels since World War II—- 3.3 percent of GDP, exclusive of supplemental war funding.

Following the Cold War, our nation cut the size of the Army, Navy and Air Force by almost one-half and took an extended “procurement holiday,” purchasing only one-half to one-tenth the average number of helicopters, ships, fighters, bombers, tankers, transports and armored vehicles purchased annually from 1975 to 1990.

The current Bush administration planned to “transform” the military through further cuts in manpower to pay for advanced weapon systems; however, September 11 changed everything. The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan forced the administration to defer modernizing an already aging inventory of weapons.

It remains important for the Army to develop its Future Combat Systems, a networked family of manned and unmanned vehicles to replace many tanks and armored vehicles. Yet at existing funding levels, we risk developing these vehicles only to find that we can afford to equip just a small portion of the force.

In addition, the Air Force must replace aging fighters and tankers. Presently, only one-half of the funding is budgeted to purchase the 381 F-22 stealth fighters that the Air Force needs to replace the F-15As/C Eagles built in the 1970s. The need for new fighters became more obvious last November when the fuselage of an F-15 broke in half during a training flight.

The Air Force also must replace more than 500 KC-135 tankers, many of which were built in the late 1950s. At the current rate, we will procure 12 to 15 new tankers per year, which means the great-grandchildren of the original aircrew members will be flying them in the late 2030s! The same holds true with our B-52 bombers, which were built in the early 1960s.

No less telling, today’s Navy includes 280 vessels, down from President Reagan’s Navy of 568 ships. Additionally, we are building only one Virginia-class attack submarine per year, compared to China’s annual production of four to five advanced subs.

Furthermore, an inadequate defense budget will erode military pay, health care and housing. Personnel costs have doubled since 2001 and are expected to double yet again by 2015. These funding constraints will jeopardize the sorely needed expansion of the Army and Marine Corps.

Military construction projects will be delayed, and military readiness, which took a nosedive in the late 1990s, will again decline due to aging equipment and limited training funds. Military research, which supports the development of next-generation weapons, force protection capabilities and medical technologies that save lives on the battlefield, will be further cut from already insufficient levels.

Given the major challenges that we face around the globe, we must invest generously in the future of our nation’s defense. Our service members stand ready to put their lives on the line for us. The very least we can do in return is ensure they have the training, equipment and benefits they obviously deserve.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican, is a member of the Armed Services Committee.

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