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Planning for Defeat

By Daniel A. Handlin, None

If you want to know how to defeat the American military, you should ask the Pentagon. On April 6, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a massive restructuring of the United States’ military spending plans for the foreseeable future. Essentially, it cancels or scraps many of the most advanced technological development projects now being undertaken by American industry.

Under the aegis of reducing “wasteful spending” and favoring weapons for Iraq and Afghanistan over so-called “Cold War” systems, the administration will cancel further procurement of the world’s best fighter aircraft, end production of its most versatile cargo plane, do away with the flagship military communications satellite program for the next decade, scrap several major missile-defense projects and a search and rescue helicopter project, and significantly delay or cancel many U.S. Navy shipbuilding programs.

On the surface, choosing not to build “Cold War” systems and reducing “waste” sounds fine. In reality, both of these actions are flawed. This smorgasbord of cuts goes too far and has the potential to threaten the long-term dominance of American industry, military power, and technology.

Gates has made a name for himself criticizing what he calls “next-war-itis”; the military mindset of preparing for these kinds of massive conflicts with peers like China and losing focus on the current wars. It is true that the military has adopted too much of this mindset in recent years. But these cuts damage our technological hedge against potential “peer” enemies by judging that, because our current wars have no technological enemies, our future wars won’t either. While unlikely, a peer war is not impossible, and the dangers of being caught unprepared in such a conflict are far too great to ignore. To risk victory in such a war by cancelling our most advanced weapons projects simply because there is currently a recession is both foolhardy and arrogant.

This attitude is also inconsistent with President Obama’s pronounced goals in domestic policy. The idea of withdrawing funds that support the most cutting-edge research by the nation’s best and brightest in a field in which the U.S. has perhaps the largest lead over any other in the world—advanced technological development—is questionable at best. It goes directly against the ideals he has promoted domestically of stimulating our economy, supporting science and technology, and providing opportunities for young engineers and scientists to engage in the most exciting and advanced work possible, and it is certainly not welcome news to the American high-tech industry, already reeling from the recession and the loss of civilian business.

It is true that some of these so-called “Cold War” systems were originally designed to be used against adversaries who were roughly equivalent to the U.S. in military ability. But most of the systems are still enormously valuable in current conflicts. The search-and-rescue helicopter and communications satellite programs are clearly useful even in peacetime; missile defense as it now exists is a system that is only effective against erratic, small actors such as North Korea, which just launched another missile; and cargo planes are desperately needed to support the wars and humanitarian efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, as another illustration of the inconsistency of these cuts with Obama’s policies, the C-17, a cargo plane now being cancelled, is specifically cited by Obama on his administration website as an example of a post-Cold War aircraft that is well suited for fighting the wars on terrorism.

Questioning what constitutes “waste” in military procurement is difficult. Much like with the domestic stimulus, at some level it is possible to point to nearly any unwanted spending and declare it to be waste. Looked at more dispassionately, what is referred to as “waste” simply boils down to a disagreement between the government and contractor on how the contract or requirements are interpreted.

“Waste” is, in fact, most often generated by Congress. There are many ways in which this can occur, but one of the most common, which these cuts contain in spades, is that of wasting sunk research and development costs. For example, suppose $50 billion are spent over 10 years to develop the technology necessary to produce a new airplane. When the plane is finally ready to be built, a recession hits and Congress decides to cancel the plane after only 10 are built. Even though the marginal cost of each aircraft might be only $70 million, these planes are assigned the entire sunk cost and are now “$5 billion aircraft.” Critics then point to this aircraft as an example of wasted money and time and use it as a way to torpedo other programs before they can cause such awful “waste.” This is a matter of interpretation and shortsightedness by Congress.

While oversight and careful attention to the necessity of weapons is laudable, these cuts are far too deep and have the potential to significantly set back the U.S. military and defense industry inasmuch as they mean that we will be relying on our current weapons for the foreseeable future.

Hopefully, Harvard professor Ashton Carter, recently tapped by the president to head weapons procurement for the Pentagon, can inject some sanity into this process. The damage that this plan will do to industry, to engineers, and ultimately to the future dominance of the U.S. military is simply too dangerous to ignore.

Daniel A. Handlin ’11, a Crimson news editor, is an astrophysics concentrator in Winthrop House.

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