A Defense Budget for the Real World

As Spencer Ackerman puts it, while Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt don’t much like the Gates/Obama defense budget they do seem to love KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest:

More often it rewards those who arrive on the battlefield “the fustest with the mostest,” as Civil War Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest once put it. If Mr. Gates has his way, U.S. forces will find it increasingly hard to meet the Forrest standard.

This is just insane. Let’s look once again at U.S. defense spending in context:

There’s no reason at all to think that the United States will have any problem arriving anywhere “with the mostest” any time soon. There is, however, still a question of how to allocate resources. The Gates/Obama proposal is to shift resources away from the kind of Cold War-style systems designed to fight a big adversary and toward greater investment in flexible equipment and the military’s human capital. Donnelly and Schmitt say that without the F-22 we’ll be going to war with “the 660 F-15s flying today, but which are literally falling apart at the seams from age and use.” In fact, we’ll be going to war with F-35s. It’s a cheaper and more flexible product as well as higher in quality than even a brand-new F-15. And the F-15 is a pretty solid plane in the first place.

But rather than get bogged down in the details, it’s worth looking at the big picture. The problem with the F-22, or the DDG-1000, or the FCS is that for systems with a limited range of practical applications they’re terrifyingly expensive. Buying them would force us to choose between starving the military of other resources — adequate manpower, for example — or letting the defense budget just endlessly explode.

The latter is, I think, the Donnelly/Schmitt agenda. With the U.S. military already accounting for half of global defense spending, it’s clear that any inability to meet our core needs stems from bad priorities rather than inadequate funds. Donnelly and Schmitt both come to us from the American Enterprise Institute, though, so they get to make their budget decisions in the wacky world of conservaland. In this thrilling universe, tax revenues don’t need to relate to spending levels at all, and spending on defense doesn’t count as “spending.” Consequently, there’s no need to put the utility of given weapons systems in context or set any kind of priorities. Secretary Gates and President Obama, by contrast, are trying to outline a defense budget for the real world — one which recognizes the need to get the most national security bang for our Pentagon buck, and that therefore prioritizes the programs that combatant commanders say they need most and lets the desires of big defense contractors take a back seat.