Stimulus: Military modernization need not apply

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After one year, the verdict is now in on the president’s “stimulus” package. It was a monumental failure. The English language, rich as it is, is not adequate to describe the comprehensive foolishness of it. Suffice to say that it was a perfect expression of the administration’s extreme ideology, its complete inexperience both in the ways of Washington and the operation of a free-market economy, and its tone deafness to the desires of the American people.

Here is one particularly shortsighted aspect of the stimulus: none of it was or will be spent on America’s defense industrial base. Yes, that’s correct. Defense is the most important function of the federal government, and in the face of growing dangers around the world, American power is undeniably on the decline. Moreover, the one arguably successful example of Keynesian economics was the military buildup that finally ended the Depression. Yet the Obama Administration could not see its way clear to spend a dime of its 864 billion dollar stimulus bill on upgrading the equipment which our servicemen and women use to defend us.

To be fair, only one president in our lifetime has truly understood the importance of American power. Ronald Reagan was fond of saying that “of the four wars that have happened in my lifetime, none occurred because America was too strong.”

One of Reagan’s first acts was to push through Congress double digit increases in the defense budget two years in a row. That enabled the military to recapitalize its inventories using information age technology. On the strength of the Reagan buildup, America won the Cold War, overwhelmingly defeated Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm, and ushered in 15 years of peace and democratic progress around the world.

The United States has been underfunding defense modernization ever since the Reagan Administration, but the situation has now reached a crisis. America’s military is too small, and its equipment is aging and technologically out of date. The navy is the smallest it has been since 1916 and continues to shrink. The average age of the Air Force’s inventory is nearly 25 years old—two and a half times the age of its inventory during Vietnam. Most of our bombers and tankers are 50 years old; one-third of our cargo aircraft are over 35 years old; the Administration is closing our most modern Air Force fighter line and wants to close our one modern cargo aircraft line. The Army is too small, and the Army’s inventory of vehicles and helicopters must effectively be rebuilt from the ground up because of its intense use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Astoundingly, with the exception of the Joint Strike Fighter (the scope of which will almost certainly be reduced), the Navy’s Littoral Combat Vessel (which is not a blue water program), and the upgrade of the Arleigh Burke destroyer, there are no active, major modernization programs which will help sustain the preponderance of American power in the future.

Yet the risks America faces are undeniably growing. Russia invaded Georgia only 19 months ago and has never left. Chinese power is growing far ahead of what our intelligence agencies predicted. (Retired Admiral James Lyons, former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet wrote a column on this subject recently, which is required reading.) America is nowhere near prepared for the growing danger of an attack using cyber or bioweapons, either by nation states or the terrorists. Iran is getting closer to nuclear status, and both Iran and North Korea are working to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. And those are just the primary threats we face; they do not include important if secondary missions like protecting the sea lanes against piracy, fighting powerful drug cartels, or performing humanitarian missions in places like Haiti.

Recently, the Obama administration issued its “Quadrennial Defense Review,” which is the major strategic plan for the military that the Department of Defense revises every four years. It is clear from the QDR that more modernization cuts will be forthcoming because of what that document calls a “resource constrained environment.” But if the “resource environment” is constrained, it is only because so much money has been spent over the last year to so little effect. For a fraction of the stimulus funding—for perhaps half of what was spent on things like doubling the size of the Department of Energy and supporting grant writers in governors’ offices around the country—America could have modernized its forces and given our military a chance to contain and deter the storms of war that are gathering around the world. In the process, the Administration really would have saved hundreds of thousands of good jobs in America’s shrinking defense industrial base.

That opportunity is rapidly passing and will soon be gone. There is zero chance that the Administration will rescind the rest of the stimulus package, saving the money for the future or redirecting it to the vital needs of American security. Decisions have consequences, but the consequences of this decision will not be visited upon the political authorities who have made it. It will be borne by the American people, whose security is increasingly at risk, and by the men and women of America’s armed forces, who will have to try to defend us with old and worn-out tools.

Jim Talent represented Missouri in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993-2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002-2007). He is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and serves as the honorary chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation – FreedomSoultions.org.