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The Procurement Holiday Begins

Dec 2, 2017
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From this blog, almost four months ago

“..there’s another element of the Clinton legacy (and the 1990s) that often goes ignored. We refer to the so-called “procurement holiday” that gripped the Pentagon during that decade. Critical decisions on major weapons programs were postponed or shelved, forcing the Pentagon to extend the service lives of existing systems.

Investor’s Business Daily aptly described the problem–and its consequences–in an editorial published earlier this year: In the first six years of the Clinton administration, Bush 41’s budget projections for weapons procurement were slashed by $160 billion. For fiscal 2000, the Congressional Budget Office said $90 billion a year was needed to hold procurement steady. The Clinton procurement budget was a mere $55 billion. During the Reagan buildup (fiscal 1981-87), we spent an average of $131 billion on procurement.

And the effects of Mr. Clinton’s procurement holiday are still being felt today, almost a decade after he left office.

“The U.S. Air Force has been engaged in continuous combat for the last 17 years with fewer airplanes today than in 1990 — only increasing their age more quickly. Moreover, current Air Force plans call for retiring two F-15s for every new F-22 brought into service.”

But if Barack Obama has his way, the USAF–and the other services–will never catch up. The Boston Globe reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will unveil a plan later this month to cut billions from new weapons systems.

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.
More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

The Globe depicts Gates as the chief architect of the plan, noting his well-publicized observation that the U.S. “cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything,”

To be sure, Mr. Gates (like any SecDef) wants to put his stamp on the Pentagon. And he’s not the first defense chief to oppose weapons systems that are grossly over-budget and behind schedule.

But the secretary isn’t the only engineer driving this train. Like his predecessors, Dr. Gates has to live within the overall parameters established by the commander-in-chief, his budget team and Congressional leaders. However, the impact of those influences is conspicuously absent from the Globe article.

As we observed last year, members of the Obama Administration and key Democrats on the Hill made it very clear–there would be cuts in defense spending. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office offered something of a blueprint in January, issuing a key study that suggested an “alternative” defense plan, with massive cuts in weapons programs. Among its recommendations:

— Reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10.
— Cancelling the Army Future Combat System (FCS) program in favor of upgrades to existing tanks and armored vehicles.
— Eliminating the Air Force’s next-generation tanker (KC-X) and spending part of that money on modifying 50-year-old KC-135s and KC-10s that date from the 1980s.
— Limiting Marine Corps purchases of JSF to the number needed to replace the AV-8B Harrier
— Cutting the Air Force JSF buy in half.
— Delay acquisition of the Navy’s next-generation cruiser (CG-X) for a decade.

In case you’re wondering, the CBO study also calls for a halt to F-22 production. In other words, it’s hard to tell where Mr. Gates’ proposal begins and the budget office plan ends. Never mind that the CBO is suggesting a risky, even dangerous procurement strategy–putting off key weapons purchases for years or decades–despite the dangers of a multi-polar world. Of course, it helps that the former CBO director is now running the Office of Management and Budget, giving him tremendous clout in military spending matters.

We should also note that military leaders almost universally oppose these recommendations. So, in eliminating programs like the F-22, Mr. Gates is bucking the advice of his own generals and admirals. But the SecDef didn’t reach the rarefied air of the E-ring by ignoring the prevailing political winds.

It’s hard to swim against a tsunami, and Bob Gates clearly knows how to follow the current. That’s why Globe article strikes us as little more than Pentagon spin, trying to put the best face on a bad situation.

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