Leadership: The Enemy You Can't Shoot Back At


January 13, 2010: The U.S. military is getting ready for hard times. With the war in Iraq won, and operations in Afghanistan not likely to match the intensity of the Iraq fighting, there's less political will to maintain the current level of military spending. Moreover, the global recession caused the United States to go deep into debt, leaving a growing apprehension about more deficit spending. So the generals and admirals at the top are bracing for the worst. And that won't be cuts in development of new weapons, or purchasing new ones, but in money needed for training.

The big fight will be with Congress over calls to divert money to high profile spending programs that provide jobs in politically vulnerable districts. Then there's the growing problem of cutting billions from the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) budget for "earmarks" (pet projects that help politicians get reelected). In addition, there is also the Congressionally mandated procurement of expensive items the military does not want, but whose continued production will help some people in Congress keep their jobs. Congress denies all this, and has their staffs prepare a blizzard of PowerPoint briefings that make it all look good.

Most legislators don't see cuts of a few percent from the O&M budget as a problem. So what if it takes a little longer for vehicles to get repaired, or that the crews of ships, aircraft and tanks spend less time training as a result? There will be a bit of noise over this, but nothing will change.

Congress had long used the defense budget, especially in peacetime, as a major source of patronage. Military spending went to where it would get the most votes. This is why it's such a political hassle to close unneeded military bases. But it also means that money tends to be spent on what is more likely to get a politician re-elected, not to buy what the troops need. Like the military bases, once you start a major project to build a new weapon, it's political suicide to kill the project (and all the jobs in someone's congressional district).

Through the 1990s, the military was stuck with a lot of Cold War era weapons projects that were no longer needed. The new weapons were necessary when there was still an arms race going on with the Soviet Union. But in 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared, along with the arms race. But the race to keep pork barrel projects alive continues in Congress. That's one reason the U.S. defense budget dropped only 30 percent from its Cold War peak (in 1988), and has been rising again since 1997. When you add in a lot of new peacekeeping missions, without any new money to pay for them, the military has to take the money from something else. The same thing happened after September 11, 2001, and the O&M budget is often raided for emergencies. You can't touch the high profile patronage projects (mostly aircraft), so it's taken from less visible things like ammo and fuel stocks. Shortages here often don't get noticed, because you can always cut back on training. But the cuts in ammo were so severe in the late 1990s that there weren't enough bullets for the troops to train with their M-16s once the War on Terror got going. While the complaints of the soldiers made some waves in the media, there was less of a stir in Congress. The legislators know how to get reelected, and they expect the troops to help out.





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