The wrong mission

The Washington cognoscenti love Leon Panetta, the man Obama just nominated to be the new secretary of defense, and it is not hard to understand why: Panetta is one of them, an establishment figure who faithfully reflects the conventional wisdom; a loyal party apparatchik who will do his president’s bidding; and, most importantly, a man fully prepared to make Obama’s vision of a dramatically downsized U.S. military a reality.

Thus the encomiums that are now being thrown Panetta’s way. He is, we are told, a “wise man,” a “pragmatist,” and a “capable and strong leader.” That’s Washington-speak for: “He shares our (liberal) worldview and our prejudices and thus won’t rock the boat.”

In other words, Panetta will do what he’s expected to do. And what the Washington cognoscenti expect of their man Panetta is that he’ll follow Bob Gates’ lead and continue to turn the screws on the Pentagon.

He’ll continue to cut the defense budget, especially spending on weapons systems and other core military functions. However, spending on Pentagon social-welfare (pay, benefits, healthcare, family assistance programs, etc.) won’t be touched or reformed, because these are considered holy and untouchable — even though these are the most expensive and fastest-growing items in the defense budget and the areas most in need of reform.

In short, Obama selected Panetta as defense secretary because he knows that Panetta, even more so than Gates, is a good company man. And, as Obama announced in his April 13, 2011 declaration of political war on the Republican Party, he is determined to preserve the ossified bureaucratic-entitlement state and will consider cutting only one government agency: the Department of Defense.

Obama is committed to cutting an astounding $400 billion in current and future defense spending. This after having cut the defense budget by that same amount already during his first two years in office. Hence the cancellation of the Transformational Satellite Program (TSP) and eight new Army combat vehicle types (Future Combat Systems or FCS), all of which are integral to modernizing U.S. military capabilities for 21st-century irregular warfare.

Unfortunately, the cancelation of key modernization programs like TSP and FCS tells only half the story. There also is the elimination of crucially needed modernization programs that the military services never even initiate or propose because they know that such initiatives are nonstarters in Obama’s downsized Pentagon.

The Army, for instance, is in serious need of a new armed reconnaissance helicopter to replace its 1969-vintage OH-58 Kiowa Warrior. But instead of securing a new aircraft, the Army has committed itself to further upgrades on an increasingly antiquated airframe.

Ironically, this is being done in the name of “cost-savings.” But as analyst Richard Cleary observes:

Absent significant capital input, the production base is simply too small for a new line of next-generation helicopters. Thus, decisions intended to save money in the short-term will, unfortunately, require greater investment for future systems.

Moreover, Cleary notes, it’s not just the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, but rather the Army’s entire helicopter fleet that is in urgent need of modernization, thanks to its extensive use in Iraq and Afghanistan.