The wrong mission

John Guardiano Freelance Writer
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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.

Will Panetta insist upon modernizing the Army’s helicopter fleet and other key weapon systems that our troops need to fight and win 21st-century conflicts? Fat chance. In fact, if anything, he’ll do the opposite.

“President Obama’s pick to lead the Pentagon made clear Thursday that he intends to continue cost-cutting efforts begun last year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates,” reports The Hill newspaper.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, whom Obama plans to shift to the Pentagon, vowed to maintain the strongest military in the world.

But, speaking at a White House briefing announcing Obama’s new national-security team, he sent a message to the defense establishment: The Pentagon will be “disciplined” in spending federal funds under his watch.

“It is time for tough choices,” Panetta said.

Gates started an internal budget-cutting drill last year that uncovered more than $100 billion in savings. Most of those savings were directed to hardware programs, with a smaller amount going to deficit-reduction efforts.

Obama has ordered the Defense Department to lead a “comprehensive” study of Washington’s national security missions and America’s role in the world.

It is likely that review will suggest missions the military believes it can shed to save money. Overseeing the completion of that study will be among Panetta’s first high-profile tasks, assuming he is confirmed by the Senate.

In other words, the loyal Democrat Party soldier, Leon Panetta, has been given his marching orders, he’s saluted smartly, and is now preparing to execute his assigned mission.

Unfortunately, it’s the wrong mission. Instead of cutting defense spending, we should be increasing it to at least four percent of GDP. This would ensure that we have the troops and the capabilities required to fight and prevail in myriad 21st-century conflicts.

Four percent of GDP is roughly one-half to one-third of what America spent on defense under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (a Republican) and John F. Kennedy (a Democrat), only Washington doesn’t know it. But America’s enemies do.

John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. He writes and blogs for a variety of publications, including FrumForum, the American Spectator and The Daily Caller. Follow him at his personal blog, ResoluteCon.com, and on Twitter @JohnRGuardiano.