Special Forces, Big-Ticket Weapons Dominate Defense Plans

WASHINGTON – While the Pentagon emerged as the big winner Monday among U.S. government agencies in next year’s budget sweepstakes, its failure to choose among the threats it says it must defend the country against may prove costly in the long run, both financially and operationally, according to analysts here.

Although a major part of the proposed 7-percent increase in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) budget is designed to boost its counter-insurgency and unconventional warfare capabilities for the "war on terror," the budget also includes significantly more money for the development and procurement of expensive new weapons systems to cope with potential future threats, particularly China.

The costs of doing both, however, are putting a major strain on the U.S. Treasury at a time when popular social spending is being cut back in the face of an anticipated record federal deficit next year – at some $420 billion, $20 billion less than what the Pentagon wants.

"Rather than making some hard decisions about future weapons systems, the DoD has essentially deferred to long-standing service interests," said Carl Conetta, director of the Boston-based Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), in reference to pet weapons projects of the different branches of the military.

"I think there’s going to be a reckoning because, with the budget deficit, the rebuilding of New Orleans, the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that Bush wants to keep his tax cuts, something is going to have to give in the Pentagon budget over the next few years," warned William Hartung, a senior defense analyst at the World Policy Institute in New York.

Under Bush’s proposed 2007 budget, the DoD will be allocated more than $440 billion, an amount that does not include an additional $120 billion the administration plans to spend on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through next year.

Indeed, the Pentagon’s 2007 budget may exceed the combined military spending of all other countries next year. In 2004, the last year for which statistics were available, Washington accounted for 47 percent of global military expenditures of just over $1 trillion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The new budget request, which followed last week’s release of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a planning document that is supposed to show how strategic priorities are aligned with the agency’s planned budgets and assets, calls for a 15-percent increase in the number of special-operations forces to some 66,000 by 2011.

The special-operations forces, which have been used for a variety of missions in the "war on terror," including intelligence collection, covert action, and the training of foreign security troops, will also be backed up by major investments in relatively new weapons systems that have proven effective in both gathering intelligence and in carrying out missile attacks against suspected terrorists and insurgents.

These new systems include unmanned surveillance aircraft, and the Pentagon is requesting $11.6 billion for several hundred of these "drones" over the next four years.

Along with the special-operations forces, the Pentagon is also to increase by a third the number of personnel specializing in psychological operations and civil affairs in the "war on terror," which the QDR rebaptized last week as "the long war."

At the same time, however, the Pentagon has no plans to add some 30,000 troops to the Army, as authorized last year by a Congress that has grown increasingly concerned that U.S. land forces have been overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Consistent with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s passion for "military transformation," the DoD plans instead invest $6.6 billion in 2007 in enhancing the Army’s flexibility and ability to intervene quickly in global hot spots.

While boosting the military’s counter-terror and counter-insurgency capabilities, the Pentagon said it had no plans to drop big-ticket weapons systems that even its strongest proponents concede are less relevant to its "long war."

Of these, the most important – and most controversial – are the Joint Strike Fighter jet and the F-22 stealth fighter jet, as well as the new destroyer vessel for the Navy and the accelerated development of a deep-strike aircraft by 2018.

These systems, as well as other advanced aircraft and warships the Pentagon hopes to buy, are seen as directed primarily at China as the most credible "rival" to U.S. military power over the next two decades or so. The new QDR calls explicitly for a sharp increase in the number of naval vessels, including aircraft carriers, deployed to the Pacific over the next four years "to support engagement, presence, and deterrence."

The budget also calls for a 20-percent increase in funding for the administration’s "Star Wars" program to destroy ballistic missiles before they hit their target – to $10.4 billion in 2007 – despite the lack of any discernible progress in developing a viable system.

"Despite many promises, they haven’t come up yet with a single device that could work under realistic conditions," said Hartung. "The program has been a disaster."

"Most of these programs have nothing to do with the kinds of threats that we face today," he added. "Some argue that we’ll need these systems in the future, if China builds up to a rival, but you can argue that current U.S. forces are adequate for anything that China can build up in the next 10 to 20 years."

Indeed, sustaining these weapons systems will likely become more difficult over the coming years, not only because they do not correspond to any clear and present threat similar to that allegedly posed by Islamist terrorism, but also because they are so expensive.

Indeed, Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA), predicted that if past procurement overruns are any guide, sustaining planned weapons programs will require increases in the defense budget of more than $75 billion a year.

"The defense budget is already high by historical standards, and further increases may be difficult to sustain in growing concerns about the federal deficit," he said. "Unfortunately, the latest QDR would do little to improve the affordability of DoD’s long-term plans."

In many ways, both the QDR and the proposed defense budget represent a major setback to Rumsfeld’s plans to wean the military off of its dependence on the expensive conventional weapons of the Cold War and "transform" it into a lighter, more flexible lethal and expeditionary force.

"I think it’s primarily because Rumsfeld didn’t have the bureaucratic skills to get it done," said the World Policy Institute’s Hartung. "The services and contractors are a powerful lobbying force."

"The new emphasis on irregular conflicts and counter-insurgency operations on the one hand and potential future conventional conflicts are pulling the military in two directions," noted Conetta. "Instead of making the tough decisions, including the possibility of planning for an entirely new military 20 to 25 years down the road that relies far less on fighters and destroyers and carriers, he’s decided that we’re going to buy all those systems, even though, by that time, they may be obsolete."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.