- - Monday, November 13, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s not exactly “Man Bites Dog,” but “Congress Gets Defense Spending Right” is almost as surprising a headline.

For too long now, we’ve been cutting corners when it comes to the military. Years of underfunding have given us a weakened force that, despite the hard work of our brave troops, is ill-equipped to handle the missions we keep throwing at it.

Think the recent spate of ship collisions is a coincidence? Hardly. They’re a red flag — a warning sign we ignore at our peril. That’s what happens when you shortchange our armed forces, and fail to ensure that they have the best training and the best equipment possible.

So when House and Senate leaders released their proposal for a defense spending authorization for 2018, and it not only met but exceeded the amount that Heritage Foundation experts had been recommending? It marked a rare piece of good news from Capitol Hill.

A base funding amount of $634 billion sounds like a lot of money — and it is. But it’s money well spent. Indeed, notes defense expert Thomas Spoehr, it “will go a long way towards beginning the rebuilding of America’s deteriorated military.”

It will do that in large measure by providing increased numbers of aircraft, ships and ground equipment — all of which, thanks to years of underfunding, is desperately needed.

House and Senate leaders are also calling for increases in the size of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Good thing, too. Each branch needs additional personnel and are at historic lows in terms of manpower.

How low? Consider what the Air Force recently did. It’s facing a shortage of fighter pilots. By year’s end, defense expert John Venable writes in the National Interest, “the service is projected to have fewer than 2,643 of the 3,643 active-duty fighter pilots it needs to execute its mission.”

So President Trump issued an executive order authorizing the secretary of defense to recall up to 1,000 retired Air Force pilots to make up for the shortfall. A good idea, but this is the sort of stopgap measure that the military has been forced to rely on for too long. Sooner rather than later, Band-Aids won’t work.

In fact, such short-term solutions, however creative, can almost be dangerous. They help the various branches accomplish the mission at hand, and that’s certainly a good thing. But they can mask the serious problems underneath.

It’s like putting duct tape on a crack in a door. It covers up the crack, yes, and it makes things seem fine — for a while. But a problem that’s out of sight doesn’t magically go away. It continues to fester until some emergency down the road forces you to fix it properly. But by then, it’s metastasized and become more expensive to fix.

By the same token, the underfunding problem that plagues our overworked, overstressed military should have been addressed long ago. But there are no time machines handy, so the only thing we can do is to start fixing it right now.

That’s what the congressional defense authorization bill does. It takes our collective head out of the sand and enables us to get to work.

Mind you, this is just the first step. And it’s not even a step per se; it’s a decision to take that step. But the mere fact that congressional leaders are owning up to the problem and vowing to do something about it is promising.

There is much to follow through on, and Heritage’s research papers have detailed recommendations for each branch. And if our elected leaders need some motivation to get it right, Heritage’s 2018 Index of Military Strength also outlines the growing threats around the globe.

There are many things we can afford to do cheaply. Defense isn’t one of them. Let’s make sure we get this right.

• Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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